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Academic Week 2020: New Lessons In Remote Teaching and Assessment - Never Waste A Good Crisis

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Speakers at UWC Academic Week 2020 shared their experiences of teaching and assessment as facilitators of meaningful learning during the COVID19 period, to find what works for effective education in the new normal.

(Published - 18 September 2020)

Mziwoxolo Mayedwa calls them “night learners” because that’s when they do their studying: when there are fewer distractions and no family members who may need to share their devices, and when they can make use of the nighttime data.

“In this day and age, it’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and to forget that the revolution never started for others,” he said. “We may have augmented reality and virtual labs, but we also have students from different backgrounds and experiences, and they have different resources and home situations. So we still find those who are struggling - or not computer literate. We need to design courses and assessments with that in mind.”

Mayedwa is a lecturer and online champion in the Department of Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He’s spent the last six months exploring The infusion of technology to implement a fully-fledged online classroom - and was one of dozens of UWC academics who gathered to share their experiences in a webinar at UWC Academic Week 2020.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” said Danica Sims, teaching and learning specialist in UWC’s Faculty of Community and Health Sciences. “This unexpected year of emergency remote teaching has presented us with many challenges, however, it has also provided us with an important opportunity for critical reflection - to critique what has always been done, and throw the rules out the window, if need be.”

Participants discussed their experiences in using commonly adopted remote learning and teaching methods: study guides, PowerPoint slides combined with audio explanations, additional typed notes on the slides, live lectures.They also explored the potential of WhatsApp groups, Google Hangouts, UWC’s own iKamva tool, and more.

“In March, we suddenly had to learn - and unlearn, and re-learn - faster than we ever thought possible. The world was changing too rapidly for us to keep up,” said Samuel Lundie of UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry, exploring how rapidly teaching and assessment has changed. 

“When May came around, we’d settled down enough to get back to the basics, applying them to online learning to create a structured learning path for the student. And now, we’re in an extended transition phase, where we use all we’ve learned and redesign online learning to support students for the extended term until February / March 2021.”

But the actual teaching is just one aspect of remote learning: we also need a way to assess whether students are learning - and what it is they’re learning, as Prof Rajendran Govender, Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning in UWC’s Faculty of Education, explained in an in-depth look at the principles underlying assessment. 

“The purpose of assessment is to facilitate learning and move it forward,” he noted. Assessment - including online assessment - should be aligned with curriculum and relevant to the course learning outcomes. It should be fair, consistent and consider students’ environments. And it must provide a pathway to the development and enhancement of skills necessary for the world of work: problem solving, critical thinking, creative thinking, and an ability to evaluate.”

What Are We Testing For? The Leaders Of Tomorrow

For Prof Matthew Ocran, Deputy Dean: Academic Planning in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS), effective remote learning and teaching should be anchored around impacting critical thinking skills. Assessing critical thinking with open book assessment neither compromises academic rigor nor increases the risk of examination malpractice.

“The changing world of work is one that is associated with a deluge of information,” he noted. “We need to evaluate what matters, analyze it, and use it, applying the right concepts to solve our problems. That’s how we add value - and we do that by applying critical thinking in a meaningful way. We need to test for critical thinking, not for the ability to memorize information.”

That’s also important when considering plagiarism - both of online sources, and of fellow students.

“Students are more willing to directly copy others’ work than are most employees,” observed Dr Mehrdad Ghaziasgar, Senior Lecturer in Computer and Science and Head of UWC’s Assistive Research Technologies Research Group. “Part of the reason for that is that employees aren’t working on the same problem, even if they’re working on the same project, or have the same title. Their problems are unique, and don’t repeat in the same way. This is in contrast to a University in which students are almost always working on the exact same problems.”

Those problems are particularly pronounced for students in the health sciences, who need some form of clinical experience before graduation - which proved difficult during the pandemic.

For final-year Pharmacy students, clinical placements, with the focus on patient care, now had to be re-created for online teaching by developing simulated case scenarios, activities and assignments that created a clinical setting similar to the working environment of a clinical pharmacist.

“It was a relentless, intense, jam-packed module,” said Michelle Viljoen of the School of Pharmacy. “And not just for students, but for staff as well, and it’s been a steep learning curve for all of us. But the active involvement of the students contributed to an enhanced learning experience - and that will stay with us after COVID has passed.”

There are no easy answers, said Professor Vivienne Lawack, UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and host of UWC Academic Week.

“Academic Week is always exciting - we get to share our experiences, and learn from colleagues who have adopted innovative approaches to similar (or different) challenges,” Prof Lawack said. “This year is even more exciting, even though we’re doing it in a virtual format. I am inspired by how thoughtfully our academics have approached this - and we will take these learnings forward.”

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