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Prof Lindsay Clowes on the death of lectures

HELTASA Award Winner Lindsay Clowes: Lectures are Dead - Long Live Learning

As a method for transmitting information and knowledge, the traditional lecture is pretty much dead. The revolution in information and communication technology and social media offers us the chance to completely reinvent the way we teach - we need to take the plunge.”

That’s how Professor Lindsay Clowes, NRF-rated scholar in the University of the Western Cape’s Women’s & Gender Studies Department, thinks about teaching and learning at universities in the twenty-first century. And it’s thinking like that that earned her a prestigious HELTASA/CHE National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Award in 2014. Prof Clowes accepted her award at the gala dinner at this year's HELTASA conference held at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.

It’s not that she doesn’t see a place for lecturing or for university education in the years to come - she just believes that higher education will need to change its approach if it’s to be truly effective.

“I think that one of the main changes - and we are already seeing this - will be around methods of communication between and amongst teachers and learners,” she says. “The formal classroom environment, including virtual classrooms, will remain important as an opportunity to share ideas and thinking on specific issues - but stereotypical lecture monologue won’t be the default method of course delivery anymore.”

Prof Clowes earned her PhD in Historical Studies from the University of Cape Town, and has gone on to teach in Europe and America as well as in South Africa. Her work draws on feminist and queer theory as well as discursive psychology, sociology and critical men’s studies to discuss power inequalities and the ways in which subject positions structured around biological sex, gender, race, sexuality and class, constrain human choices.

It was the assistance of UWC’s Centre for Innovative Educational and Communication Technologies (CIECT) that led her to think more about using emerging technology in teaching and learning, restructuring her courses to take advantage of new technologies and provide students with more learning options.

So, she took a Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) short course IN 2012 on teaching using emerging technologies (“it was a huge learning opportunity”) and then began to experiment with e-learning, Google Drive, blogs and other technological tools, supplementing course readings with films and digital media, using discussion forums, using Twitter to highlight interesting reading materials and drive engagement, and placing more emphasis on student participation and less on long essays.

“What really matters to me is getting students to engage with the content of my courses,” she explains. “Some chose to attend lectures and tutorials; others opted to write about prescribed texts; others chose to write about public debates on relevant material; others still engaged on a discussion forum. Giving students a wide variety of opportunities to engage with course material  showed that there are a number of ways that students can really get involved.”

Her new approach earned results. It won her the UWC Teaching and Learning award in the Faculty of Arts earlier this year. More importantly, it provided a bit of insight into the use of technology in the classroom, and also allowed her to reflect much more carefully on her teaching practices and the extent to which she is achieving what she hopes to achieve.

“I ended up having students thinking and doing gender studies,” Prof Clowes notes, “rather than just listening to gender studies. Education is fundamentally a shared project, and my teaching is more effective the more I learn about and draw on the prior knowledge students bring to class with them - and I can use technological tools to encourage them to share that knowledge.”

The information landscape has changed, Prof Clowes notes, and lectures need to change along with it. “We are awash with information these days, and what’s important is knowing how to make meaningful and relevant knowledge out of all the information available. The couple of hours a week that we lecturers see students is far too valuable for them to sit passively listening to monologues from us.”

She believes that one of the things holding some of her fellow lecturers back from exploring new technologies and methods of teaching is fear - the idea that they will be exposed as not knowing as much as their students may think they do. But teaching and learning are much more effective when that fear is overcome - and students are often happy to learn that they have something to contribute.

“I’m increasingly using technology in my courses, with my students as guinea pigs...they are very tolerant of my mistakes. Anyone who asks a question that the teacher can’t (or won’t!) answer has just provided the entire class with an opportunity to learn.”

UWC is no stranger to innovative teaching techniques - its lecturers have won HELTASA awards for five years running. Prof Delia Marshall (of the Faculty of Science) won in 2010, Prof Vivienne Bozalek (Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, and Director of Teaching and Learning) in 2011, and Prof Wendy McMillan (Faculty of Dentistry) in 2012, with Dr Michael Rowe (Community and Health Sciences) earning a HELTASA commendation in 2013.