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VC’s Team Teaching Award for 2021

- Kim Jurgensen

The CLM T&L Centre Team are the recipients of the VC’s Team Teaching Award for 2021

Left to right: Dr Greig Krull (Academic Director: Digital Learning), Fiona McAlister (Project Manager: Online Learning), Professor Ruksana Osman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic), Tshepiso Maleswena (Head: Road to Success Programme) and Danie de Klerk (Head: CLM Teaching and Learning Centre)

The CLM T&L Centre Team are the recipients of the VC’s Team Teaching Award for 2021. Their nomination focused on their work during the period March to June 2020 and revolved around the team’s efforts to support CLM academics and students to transition to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning (ERTL). The team consists of four learning and teaching professionals from the Faculty of Commerce, Law, and Management Teaching and Learning Centre. They are: Danie de Klerk (Head: CLM Teaching and Learning Centre), Dr Greig Krull (Academic Director: Digital Learning), Fiona McAlister (Project Manager: Online Learning), and Tshepiso Maleswena (Head: Road to Success Programme, which is the faculty’s student success and support unit).

Kim Jurgensen, the Faculty communications manager, chatted to the team about the award and about the unit.

KJ- can you explain how the team works and how it differs from other T&L teams in the university

Danie de Klerk – The T&L centre in our Faculty is relatively new, just over two years old.  There was an urgent need to establish and evolve a structure similar to what already existed in other faculties at the university. The Centre now includes the CLM Online Learning and Teaching unit (COLT), the Postgraduate Writing Unit, and the faculty’s student success and support unit, commonly known as the Road to Success Programme (RSP).

KJ- Greig, you and Fiona were brought in beginning of 2020 to do online stuff. What were you expecting to do, and how did your actual experience differ from that?

Greig Krull - We were brought in to support the design, development and rollout of fully online programmes. Covid-19 then forced everyone to rapidly move into ERTL which meant instead of just a few people working on online programmes, every academic had to transition to the online space. Both Fiona and I come from an online background, so for us, supporting academics in ERTL wasn’t too different to what we had done before. Although the transition was incredibly challenging, it did force academics, who may have been very resistant previously, to think about how to integrate technology into their teaching and learning. Many of the lessons learned during this period can be taken forward. After dealing with the disruption in 2020 we then had to contend with the migration from Sakai to Ulwazi in 2021, which also required very rapid support plans. So I think academics and support staff across the university have worked incredibly hard to keep supporting students during this time. For us, it was very satisfying to be able to help people learn new ways of doing things, especially given the constraints and trauma associated with the pandemic.

KJ- Fiona, you did a lot of work with academics. Were there specific patterns of issues and problems you found. And how did you manage to stay calm through endless hours of basic training on technology.

Fiona McAlister – Fortunately, in a previous position, I had five years’ experience in providing ongoing technical and online design support to a large number of academics and students across a number of campuses, at a local private university. It was a high-pressured environment as I not only had to provide technical support but I was also responsible for the administration and maintenance of our Moodle learning management system and the server that it ran on. In that respect, the situation felt very familiar and I was able to call on that experience. For me, it was once again very much ‘business as usual’ and that is essentially what allowed me to remain calm. It was our experience during the transition to ERTL that academics required different levels of support. There were academics who were not at all comfortable using technology, academics who were reasonably familiar with Sakai but needed support in structuring their content in the online environment and those who were very keen to experiment with new approaches. We, therefore, had to adapt our approach to and cater for a wide range of capabilities. It was heart warming to be able to provide the support needed and to assist academics in having their courses up and running in time to restart the academic year. They did an incredible job in having the content ready in so short a space of time.

KJ- Tshepiso, you are the interface with students in our Faculty. What did you learn from this experience, and did you pick up any patterns in the challenges students had?

Tshepiso Maleswena – There have been similar patterns with some of the issues students faced. Of course working in the RSP we have always been aware of these challenges but Covid made the reality of those issues that more prominent. Admittedly some of those challenges were expected since our work with students over the past number of years has exposed us to the myriad of academic and psycho-social issues that students grapple with. what covid did was bring all of that to a head. Some people had impossible home circumstances…on top of data and laptop issues (rollout was not in line with academic year). One vivid example is of a student who informed us that studying is next to impossible as there are 9 family members in a four roomed house. A large cohort of students lamented the burden that the demands from family members to do chores put on them. We realized that he home and social circumstances were worse than we thought.  In our orientation we had to develop material for students as well as for their families.  Other patterns we observed were that some students over-extended themselves  trying to adjust, sitting nonstop in front a screen for over six hours a day. Another factor among the more privileged student cohort was that they were concerned about quality of education, worried that it would not be the same as that of contact earning. We had to create interventions that addressed and spoke to all these varying challenges.  

KJ - What are your thoughts on how this changes teaching and learning in the country?

Danie de Klerk – the notion of online T&L (whether fully online or through blended modalities) is not a new concept within higher education. Also, we have long been aware of the challenges faced by of some of our students. But the experiences of the last 18 months has now laid the foundation for us to move towards more authentic online and blended T&L, which will hopefully enhance our students’ learning experiences

Tshepiso Maleswena – This experience has made us think about the issue of equity. We need to use the teaching and learning space to ensure that the most disadvantaged people are given the help they need. That is how we ensure that there is a level playing field. So whether its access to devices, or data, or home circumstances, we have to ensure that all students have the best possible resources to continue with their studies.

KJ – what does this award mean for you, and what are you thinking about the future?

Greig Krull – I think it shows that there is value in our roles. It has been a steep learning curve for us as well but what I love about my job is that we are learning every day. However, I do look forward to getting out of this crisis mode.  The past 18 months have created a foundation to rethink the learning experiences for our students, and also to question some of the assumptions around teaching and learning. We could not have got through this period on our own, we have managed to build communities of practice within and outside of the faculty, and this is something we need to strengthen in the future. 

Fiona McAlister – Academics and students need to be able to move comfortably and confidently in the online teaching and learning environment and this involves orientation to the environment that goes beyond conventional computer literacy training. The online space is often regarded as an alien space. However, all it is really is an extension of the face-to-face space. To be and move between these two spaces requires a holistic approach and thinking, particularly in terms of course structure, content and pedagogy. The more comfortable and familiar academics are with the online teaching environment and the possibilities that it offers, the more comfortable their students will be, and vice versa. It is, therefore, essential to adopt a coherent two-pronged approach to any digital literacy initiative so that it maps to and addresses the needs of both academics and students.

Tshepiso Maleswena – For a long time we have been talking only of meritocracy. Now we really need to start talking about equity. What these past 18 months has taught us is the need to work as a community to support the most disadvantaged. This is not just about technology, but is much broader.  I believe the vision of an equitable future is possible and the future of academic advising is bright.

The team also specifically mentioned Prof. Jason Cohen, Aneshree Nayager, Mbongeni Shungube, Siyasamkela Jinoyi who all played important roles in supporting their work.