Celebrating Teaching at Unisa

The 2016 Unisa and Teaching and Learning Festival, held 20-21st October, aimed to celebrate teaching and learning at Unisa. It was also an opportunity to hear from the nominees for the Unisa teaching awards. The theme of the festival was to celebrate the new generation student. I found this to be quite a strange theme, as Unisa has a diverse student body profile that incorporates a range of age groups. I’m also not sure that there is such a “thing” as a new-generation student. I suspect the context also has to do with the move from more traditional distance education towards making more use of online learning. The timing of the festival also had the very pressing issue of #FeesMustFall hanging over the proceedings.

The keynote speaker was Koffi Kouakou (from Wits University) who pointed out that teaching and learning go hand in hand, and that you can only be a good teacher if you learn well. He adapted an expression from EM Forster to say “How do I know what I learn until I learn what I teach”. He also emphasized the role of storytelling in teaching and encouraged teachers to develop the art of storytelling. Prof Rosemary Moeketsi spoke about the need for the decolonialisation and transformation of curricula. A frequent topic in the festival was how to better support students in the South African context and focus on what is relevant for students. Another keynote speaker, Prof Paul Prinsloo from Unisa, encouraged lecturers to make use of newer technologies such as learning analytics in a caring way to improve support to students in a way that does not add to teacher time. e.g. a tracking system that sends automated reminders (email or sms) when students do not submit an assignment.

Although the main part of the festival comprised short presentations from the nominees for the teaching awards from various colleges, teaching and learning support staff also presented on the support provided by their departments.

Here are some of the points that stood out for me from the nominees’ presentations:

  • Team approach to course design: In the Unisa approach, teaching is a collaborative process. Not only do lecturers sometimes work together to develop courses, they also get input from other stakeholders to improve the quality of the course. This includes members of their departments, industry representatives, course designers and others.
  • Incremental improvements: Many of the presentations highlighted small but meaningful changes that are made in their courses each year, rather than a completely innovative approach. Put together, a series of small incremental improvements can make a major difference to students.
  • Use of multimedia and OERs: Although not widely used yet, lecturers are experimenting more with the use of short podcasts, videos and animations that they develop themselves. They are also increasingly making use of existing open content out there to enhance their courses e.g. YouTube videos.
  • Use of instant messaging communication tools: Several lecturers have been using WhatsApp as a communication platform to engage with their students and go to “where the conversation is”. This also enables lecturers to stand back and let other students answer questions first etc.
  • Formative assessments: Many lecturers are encouraging students to use online self-assessments as part of the formative assessment process.
  • eTutors:  More and more courses at 1st and 2nd year level are making use of e-tutors to support the teaching process.

Congratulations to the award winners, the awarding of the teaching prizes closed the festival.

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