The unknown may trigger feelings of paralysing fear but it can also inspire people to discover new horizons and make the impossible possible. For our Information Technology (IT) Department, the unknown has been eye-opening.


Already steadily on their way towards finalising a digital strategy to keep pace with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the lockdown and resulting shift to online learning forced IT to accelerate their digital journey.

Boeta Pretorius is the director of Information Technology.

eish! asked IT director Boeta Pretorius to tell us about the innovation and resilience that have helped them navigate uncharted territory during the past two months.


Q: What were IT's biggest challenges in preparing the NWU for online learning?

A: Definitely the unknown! We had so many questions. What will the load on eFundi be? How much disks space would be enough for all the videos that will be uploaded? How many students would need to access computer lab applications? Will our licensing contracts cover this need?


We also wondered how we would support our students from a distance. Do they have connectivity? Data? Laptops? A big problem was that our student data, including telephone numbers, addresses and access to devices, was outdated.


Probably the most important question was whether our cyber security would stand up to the new challenges.


Another huge challenge was to negotiate zero-rated websites with the four major telecommunication companies. There were national negotiations as well as localised negotiations going on, and the companies were not ready for this. It was a disappointment that one company zero-rated only three of our websites and that another one introduced a monthly cap of 500 megabyte per student.


Q: How did you overcome these challenges?

A: In the past, we made good choices about staff training, technology, IT architecture and partnerships within the university, including with the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). In fact, we have been working closely with CTL for some time now, led by the guidelines in the Teaching and Learning with Technology Strategy.


Partnerships outside the university also proved to be of great value. These are for instance with international universities using the same technology as we do, the Association of University IT Directors, Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Department for Higher Education and Training, among others.


Q: Was eFundi able to handle the large numbers of students working on it?

A: I have a permanent dashboard on my screen to keep an eye on the performance of eFundi, which has been holding up well.


The largest number of students working on eFundi at any one time was over 15 000, with a very large percentage of students accessing the learning platform every day. What is interesting is that even on weekends there are between 5 000 and 7 500 students working simultaneously. The average response time for users over the past few months was 1,2 seconds.


Q: How has the usage of eFundi grown since we started with online learning?

A: The number of students using eFundi daily has at least doubled. Approximately 45 terabytes of traffic flows to and from eFundi per month and lecturers have loaded about three terabytes of content on the system since the lockdown started.


Q: Approximately how many online meetings are there per day and how does it impact our systems?

A: During the last six months of 2019 there were 4 943 Vidyo video conference connections, compared to the 5 470 connections on Vidyo during the first 16 days of lockdown. This does not include connections made via other programmes such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom and Big Blue Button.


Although we do not have data on these connections, I can say with confidence that hundreds of virtual meetings take place every day.


Q: What good has come out of all this hard work on the part of IT?

A: Being able to respond to the “new normal” and the general stability in the IT services raised our confidence tremendously. Years of applying good principles in planning and design are now bearing fruit. It would also be much easier now to focus on digital business transformation going into the future and participating to the full in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Q: What have you learnt through this experience?

A: I learned that people are your greatest asset, with trust and partnerships second in line. I also realised that holistic thinking and good design principles will always save you and that working for a stable and well-managed institution is a privilege.


Q: A last word from your side?

A: Covid-19 accelerated the NWU’s digital journey and we will not go into reverse now. We have learned that digital transformation will touch business models, culture, clients, operating models and technology. NOW is the time to put the foot on the accelerator and not on the brake.

IT: Braving the unknown