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10 September 2021
Academic Week 2021: Best Of Both Worlds - Blended Education In A Disrupted Higher Education Landscape

COVID-19 changed the way the world viewed education, with lecturers forced to explore creative and innovative ways of providing effective remote learning to thousands of students. And it hasn’t always been easy.

“When COVID started, I’d only been lecturing for a year,” recalled Martha Wehmeyer, Accounting and Finance Lecturer at UWC’s School of Business and Finance. “I felt like I’d just gotten used to everything and then everything changed again. All my lectures were face-to-face. How would I move them online? What platforms would I be using? How was I going to get my students involved? What, in short, was I going to do now?” 

Wehmeyer knew she had a lot of learning to do. But fortunately, she didn’t have to do it alone. 

UWC’s Centre for Innovative Education & Communication Technologies (CIECT) has ensured the implementation of a sustainable support structure during lockdown, for staff and students to engage in remote teaching, learning and assessment. When lecturers need assistance with the design and development of their online environments - including the use of various eTools within iKamva, embedding digital media components, or making use of discussion forums for communication and assessment purposes - the CIECT team lends a hand.

In Wehmeyer’s case, they helped her create an online iKamva-based environment which includes scaffolding of weekly learning content, weekly to-do lists and weekly lectures. Wehmeyer made extensive use of the Lessons function and facilitated live classes via Zoom. 

“As Albert Einstein said: ‘I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn,’” she noted. “And that’s what I had to do in this online environment, where everything was new for us as well as the students. I couldn’t force them to engage - only make it as easy as possible for them to do so.”

There was no one-size-fits-all approach to creating that perfect environment, though - different subjects and students have different needs, after all. 

Foundation Phase Education students needed to have their classroom education examined. Musicians had to find a way to learn theory and also have live practice sessions. And geology students had to find a way to look at rocks - managed through various etools, assessment practices and student engagement - as well as attend the first virtual field trip on iKamva.

“One of our MSc students is conducting research at various geological sites, by taking high-definition photos to develop virtual field tours (VFT) in order to supplement existing field excursions within this module,” recalled Yafah Williams, lecturer in the first-year Earth Sciences (Geology) course. “Since no physical excursions were possible this year, through the VFT that was developed, students were able to log in on iKamva, and move between various sites, from Sea Point, Lion’s Head, Kloofnek to Table Mountain, to observe the rock formations and other features and answer related questions.”

These projects and more were explored in a recent Colloquium on Blended Learning & Teaching Arrangements as part of UWC’s Academic Week 2021, which aimed to unpack UWC’s learning and teaching initiatives and strategic imperatives.

“At UWC, we are committed to ensuring student success - and providing a learning and teaching experience that can help develop graduates who are ready for the world of tomorrow,” said Professor Vivienne Lawack, UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, and host of Academic Week.

“There was a lot of creativity and innovation that came with us having to go online, and I think the big challenge for us is not to just go back to the way we were. We should think carefully about what we’ve learned during these last eighteen months, and take the possibilities it has opened up that can enable our graduates to be ready for a changing world of work and to make a meaningful contribution to our communities”..”

Best Of Both Worlds: Changing Campus For Changing Times

But it’s not just about providing an effective online learning experience. Universities should also transform their physical spaces - there are some subjects that are better taught in the classroom, where lecturers and/or students can handle rocks (for geology) or dissections (for biology), or many other things that are difficult to teach from home.

“There’s been a lot of uncertainty around when students will actually return to campus - and how it will happen,” said Clint Braaf, Multimedia Manager at the CIECT. “How will we maintain social distancing? Maybe some students will be in class, and others will be at home. Maybe they’ll be in another building on campus. But we need to give everyone access to what’s going on in the classroom, even if they’re not there.” 

The solution: classroom cameras linked to streaming services such as Google Meet or Zoom.

Given the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the commencement of a National Lockdown, more and more academic staff have adopted online teaching practices. 

“Document cameras in all teaching spaces will enable teaching staff to broadcast directly from a classroom or laboratory setting to students logging on remotely,” Braaf noted. “A lecturer can therefore either record a lesson and make it available via the institution's Learning Management System or stream it directly to students utilising a document camera. At some stage the physical classroom and the online space merges - and that’s what this project is all about.”

An audio-visual audit conducted in 2018 identified teaching spaces and venues on campus equipped with document cameras - over 140 of them. And since then, over 156 more cameras have been installed in classrooms all over campus. The project is nearing its end, and there’s training available for interested academics. Some have even been testing it out in the meantime.

It’s all part of creating autonomous students - self-directed learners who can find their own paths to success (with a little guidance).

“An autonomous student has a sense of ownership of the learning process,” Wehmeyer explained. “They don’t ask us to do everything for them. They just ask us to help them learn to do it for themselves. If we trust them enough and guide them well, they’ll take it from there.”

Find out more about the UWC Academic Week 2021 progrmme at news-and-announcements/events/academic-week-2021.