5 things I wish I’d known before studying at Unisa

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The University of South Africa (Unisa) has a reputation that precedes it. Some people have amazing experiences at the school while may more have the opposite.

As a recent graduate I’ve put together some general tips for your stay at Unisa, should you be someone looking to study there, a brand new student in year one, or even someone who already has a few semesters under their belt.

1. Work around myUnisa

myUnisa is the backend of the Unisa website for students and educators that does just about everything you can think of in a school environment. It’s where you’ll submit assignments and even exams, where you’ll participate in student discussion, register for modules and so much more.

What I want to focus on here is some specific good practices you need to keep in mind.

Maybe the chief among those good practices is assume myUnisa will be inaccessible at any time. On Unisa’s side of things the site will go down often due to maintenance and high traffic. If you’re enrolled in some of the year one modules which have hundreds or thousands of students you may find that myUnisa crashes and is inaccessible the entire day that an assignment is due when everyone rushes to submit in the last minute.

On your side of things loadshedding or data problems may mean you lose access.

To combat these problems first make local backups of all the files hosted on myUnisa. This includes your tutorial letters, study guides and example past exams. You always want to have access to these and a local copy is the perfect way to ensure that.

Next up, and you may not want to hear this, is to try and complete and submit assignments as soon as possible. The closer you leave your submission to the real due date the higher the chance that the site goes down due to traffic. We’ve found that even submitting one day before the date results in no problems at all.

2. Don’t bother calling Unisa itself

One of Unisa’s worst attributes you may have heard of is its call centre and the lack of anyone answering the phone. I’ve experienced so many wasted hours and heard the same from so many other students. As a rule try to ignore the general contact information on the main Unisa site.

If you get stuck there are, however, some options.

After you enrol your tutorial letter – a kind of guide to your module – will have contact information for the educators in charge of that module and maybe in charge of the entire school your degree belongs to. It’s better to email those people than rely on the call centre.

Alternatively myUnisa has a forum for most modules. Here you can usually ask questions freely and interact with the educator in charge of the module and fellow students.

Finally there’s the option to visit a Unisa campus in person. Many students I’ve spoken to before use this as a last resort but one that usually works as you can sit down with an employee or educator even if you have to wait a few hours.

This last option is a bit up in the air right now due to the pandemic. Back in September Unisa opened some of its campuses up for visits through a booking system. With South Africa experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 this may not remain viable and leaving the house is always dangerous with the coronavirus still around.

Like I said, this is a last resort.

3. Study groups. Study groups. Study groups. 

One of the biggest stigmas attached to Unisa is a sense of isolation and loneliness when completing your studies as you’re sequestered at home, especially during this pandemic. This problem is also exasperated by Unisa itself when it routinely fails to do something as simply as pick up a ringing telephone, as discussed earlier.

Other students are your best bet here. Teaming up with students studying the same module(s) or even degree as you will be a godsend. Knowing you have a support structure in place to go over coursework, ask questions to and simply discuss student life is essential to get through Unisa – or any university – alive and with your psyche in tact.

Contacting other students can be done in a variety of ways. The aforementioned forum inside of myUnisa is a good place to start. Sometimes the educator in charge of a module will set up a group chat for this purpose. Sometimes students will set up their own chats in WhatsApp or Telegram. It varies by module and degree.

You’ll have to get a bit creative here. Leave signs in book stores or exam halls, check the replies to the official Unisa Twitter account, maybe even ask your friends and family in your community if there’s another Unisa student around who can put you on the right path.

Connecting with other students has always been a challenge at Unisa and this has been magnified by the pandemic. Try and adapt and survive where possible.

4. Consider digital textbooks

I won’t lie to you, the second-hand market of Unisa physical textbooks is the cheapest way to get the literature you need. Used book stores will sell them for less than new, and private sellers offer even better deals. Once you’re done with a module you can then sell your books on to get some money back. It’s a good system.

All of this doesn’t even mention the fact that many find physical books easier to read and learn from.

I want to suggest trying out digital books, however. For Unisa the local book store Van Schaik sells Unisa textbooks which you can buy as physical versions delivered to you, or digital codes redeemed on certain software.

The digital book route offers many advantages. The ability to quickly search through a an entire book will save you many hours of wasted page flipping, even for those adept at speed reading and use of the glossary. Many books don’t even have a glossary making this process even more difficult.

This also helps when it comes to making notes. The way I made notes was to read through my entire textbook and copy paste certain important sections into a Word document, creating my own summarised version. This would have taken ages to do manually.

There’s countless ways digital books are better than physical in the world of academia. If you’re a hardcore lover of the physical ones, like I once was, I implore you to give digital a try even if it is more expensive.

5. Don’t get discouraged

The rest of the advice on this page has been very specific but here I have to go into generalities.

Between the difficulty of your coursework itself and the strange, infuriating way Unisa operates, it’s very easy to become despondent. The constant barrage of work and the school fighting you with indifference at every turn can lead many students to a dangerous mental state.

I’m not a psychologist and I have no silver bullet for this problem. All I can offer you is the sentiment that you will need to success despite Unisa, not because of it. That may mean looking for a tutor on the side, tracking down graduates to ask for their notes, spending hours going over past exams… whatever you need to do to get by.

Aside from what we’ve discussed above I also want to reiterate getting an early jump on your work, especially assignments and studying for exams. This will allow you to avoid the aforementioned problems with busy day submissions on myUnisa while also leaving you enough time to actually relax.

There’s a reason so many people say not to leave this to the last minute, and I have to urge you to remember that.

Clinton Matos

Clinton Matos

Clinton has been a programmer, engineering student, project manager, asset controller and even a farrier. Now he handles the maker side of htxt.africa.

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