“Students are not ‘just students’. They’re not simply ‘clients’ or ‘consumers’. They are part of the partners in the learning and teaching process, and an important voice in decolonising and transforming the university space. And it’s only by understanding that - and strengthening it - that higher education can thrive in these turbulent times.”
That, as Dr Subethra Pather, Teaching & Learning Specialist at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), explained, was the thinking behind Academic Week: Support for Academic Success at UWC - a webinar highlighting the importance of working with students on the Student Walk, which connects students through their academic journey.
“University life can be challenging - especially now. In order for the student’s journey to be a success we need to support them in their walk from pre-entry to graduation and beyond,” she said. “Taking on this view at UWC allows us to reimagine our students as part of the transformation process - and to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”
Webinar presentations took the form of oral submissions, Tiktoks and poster presentations, and even epic poetry about the tutorial process. It showcased student and academic staff voices on supporting students on their journey, and highlighting the importance of teaming up with students as partners to address issues relating to learning, teaching and student success.
“Surveys have revealed that students are more comfortable seeking academic support from peers, rather than from staff,” noted Chanté Johannes, a PhD candidate in the SRES department of the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences (CHS). “We call it the ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ effect - information being spread among peers through word of mouth, rather than in the formal classroom environment. As a result, the First-Year Transition Programme was developed.”
The programme is designed to facilitate a shared sense of belonging, cohesion and success for all first-year students. Postgraduate students are selected to be First-Year Transition Officers (FYTOs) in the seven faculties across UWC. The FYTOs and mentors are also students from the respective faculties they are appointed in, which allows them to relate to the first-year students and assist them with any academic and social queries.
Johannes is the FYTO for the CHS Faculty. “Being a FYTO has helped me grow not only academically but professionally and socially as well. We have to keep learning and improving ourselves, and trying to reach students the best way we can offline. During COVID, that’s meant launching our own FYTO social media channels to share information, tips and challenges - and we’re learning and growing along the way.”
Are You Still There? Keeping Students Engaged & Motivated Online
Reaching students effectively has also been a challenge for Dr Jacolien Volschenk and Dr Martina van Heerden, lecturers in the English for Educational Development (Science) module.
“The past year has made it clear how important it is to build a social presence and a sense of community when conducting tutorials online,” Dr Van Heerden noted. “Crucial non-verbal and relational cues are absent or obscured during online teaching and learning, which makes it more difficult to create the intimate and comfortable environment necessary for optimal learning and engagement. When you’re staring at a bunch of icons in Zoom or Meets, it can feel like you’re teaching into the void.”
They addressed this by, among other things, asking students to use profile pictures or avatars to help create a sense of presence. They encouraged students to get to know each other through short bios and questions - something that’s much harder online than face-to-face. They also strongly encouraged the use of emojis and humour in the chat so that students wouldn’t see tutors as remote authority figures.
“We want our students to participate more in tutorials,” said Dr Volschenk. “One of our tutors, Siyabonga Manana, suggested that we remove ourselves from the online classroom by leaving a Google Meet session so that students can work without us around. It works really well and shows the importance of crowdsourcing ideas.”
They used other avenues as well: groupwork, gamification, and active participation through multiple choice questions rather than passive listening. “Motivation is key to participation and learning,” Dr Volschenk noted. “That’s why we are always trying to figure out new ways to capture students’ interest.”
Even UWC’s Writing Centre (where student support is also provided by peers in the form of tutors) can’t just rely on writing for communication and coordination in the COVID era - so they’ve found other ways of getting students engaged.
“Initially with the COVID lockdown, we were really thrown like everyone else,” said Writing Centre Director, Dr Arona Dison. “This year our tutors have been consulting with students on online meeting platforms. We feel that it provides a space for conversation about the students’ writing that one-way written feedback lacks. Conducting workshops online is challenging, but we have managed to use the affordances of the platforms creatively to facilitate interaction. For example, we have used the breakout rooms of Zoom or Big Blue Button to facilitate group tasks or discussions in workshops. One of the (few) advantages of running workshops online is the chat function as we feel that some students feel comfortable to write in the chat, who wouldn't necessarily talk in the workshop.”
Academic Week 2021: Shaping Minds, Shaping The World
The Student Success webinar served as the opening for the University of the Western Cape’s Academic Week 2021, which aims to educate staff, students and other university stakeholders about learning and teaching initiatives, as well as projects focused on strategic imperatives.
“Universities around the world, and especially in South Africa, face some serious challenges to student success: historical inequalities, transformation and digital disruption - and the COVID pandemic, as well," saidaid Professor Vivienne Lawack, UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, and host of UWC Academic Week. "But I am pleased to say that UWC as an institution is responding to the challenge. Our fifth annual Academic Week celebrates how we have come together around our UWC Student retention and success framework, across portfolios - all with student success and retention at the centre.”
Over the course of the week, UWC academics will be tackling questions like:
- How do we help students complete their studies and make sure they get the most out of their time at university?
- What kind of curriculum is best suited to producing graduates who will lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution - and change the world?
- In a world of rapid technological and social change, how do universities cope? And where do we go from here, as individuals and as a society?