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HELTASA Award 2013 Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe: HELTASA teaching and learning champion

“I'm a teacher; why wouldn't I want to be as good at it as possible?”

That's the kind of thinking that has led Dr Michael Rowe, lecturer at the University of the Western Cape's Department of Physiotherapy, to strive to do better and better. And it's that striving that led to him receiving a commendation at the 2013 Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of South Africa (HELTASA) awards.

HELTASA presents awards to academics on an annual basis for their excellence in Teaching and Learning. Applicants are subjected to a rigorous selection process, based on their significant contributions to university teaching and learning, and their ability to share their philosophy, insights and innovative ideas with academics across the sector. UWC lecturers have a strong performance record when it comes to HELTASA awards: Prof Delia Marshall (of the Faculty of Science) won in 2010, Prof Vivienne Bozalek (Director of Teaching and Learning) in 2011, and Prof Wendy McMillan (Faculty of Dentistry) in 2012.

Dr Rowe graduated from the University of the Western Cape in 2001, and spent five years doing clinical work in England and Ireland. He returned to South Africa in 2007 and completed his Master’s degree at UWC in 2008, and began working in the Physiotherapy Department in the same year. Dr Rowe is also part of a national NRF research project on Emerging Technologies in Teaching and Learning and has authored a number of well-received publications related to teaching and learning. He's also given several talks and presentations at universities and conferences, both nationally and internationally.

In his five years of teaching at UWC, Dr Rowe has been a strong advocate for the use of technology to enhance classroom learning. His students are allowed to bring and use whatever devices they wish to class. His courses make heavy use of Google Drive for real-time collaboration, sharing and feedback. He teaches students to use the Physiotherapy Department's private social network to share experiences and build their portfolios, and provide course feedback. And above all, he tries to teach them how to use all the technology available to them to evaluate information critically and find the right answers.

“There's really no such thing as the Net Generation. Young people may know how to use Google or Facebook, but they don't always know how to use it for work purposes, or to get the most out of it. I spend a tremendous amount of time improving their understanding of how technology works – but it pays off in the end.”

For 2013, he even offered a MOOC (massive open online course), offering free online education in the professional ethics of health care for interested students from all over the world (though with “only” 90 participants, Dr Rowe considers it “more of a Mini-OOC”). A UWC first, it was an interesting endeavour. “It was really exciting to be able to connect our students with qualified physiotherapists from all over the world . I'm busy gathering data, and the preliminary findings are fascinating.”

The “Doctor” title is a recent addition – Rowe received his PhD in UWC's 2013 March Graduation Ceremony, having been working on it while discharging his teaching duties. His thesis, Blended learning in physiotherapy education: Designing and evaluating a technology-integrated approach, investigated (among other things) how to promote critical reasoning for physiotherapy students, and used design-based research to incorporate practitioners and colleagues' involvement in the study.

“Being a student helped me gain a better understanding of what my own students are going through, which I think is an important aspect of being a teacher. I think that sometimes we forget how difficult it is as an undergraduate, so constantly being challenged was a good reminder that learning is a process that students need to go through, rather than something they receive from us.”

He also offers his teaching and learning expertise to his fellow lecturers: he is one of two academic staff members who now work centrally once a week for the Directorate of Teaching and Learning, assisting with both the face-to-face professional development of lecturers and online resources, and interactions with a wider audience of higher educators. He mainly works with others in the institution who are interested in experimenting or making changes to their teaching and assessment practices, with particular reference to the integration of technology into their curricula.

“My main advice to anyone interested in changing their teaching and learning practices is simply to start small,” he explains. “If it feels overwhelming, then scale back a bit. Once you've made some small change and integrated it into your baseline activities, it's no longer as daunting. Over time, these incremental changes will add up, and there's no telling what you can do in the end.”

To find out more about Dr Rowe’s thoughts on teaching and learning, just check out his blog at or follow him on Twitter on @michael_rowe.