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Teaching in troubled times: South African academics try a new approach

Lecturing is an important, intimidating job and the academic’s role is changing all the time. Shutterstock

Teaching in troubled times: South African academics try a new approach

Academics in South Africa have perhaps more responsibility than ever before. The country’s universities are in flux. Enrolment rates have more than doubled since formal apartheid ended in 1994.

Institutions no longer cater for a narrow racial and economic demographic. More black South Africans than ever before are attending university, many from working-class or very poor families. A struggling basic education system has left its mark on universities – dropout rates are high.

All of this challenges academics to rethink much that has been taken for granted until now – like the curriculum, ways of teaching and methods of assessment. How can they best develop the tools to guide their teaching in a changing environment?

Staff development is obviously crucial. But one of the difficulties with traditional staff development programs is that they often bring staff from one university together instead of encouraging collaboration between institutions. This sort of relationship would allow academics to pool their expertise and support each other.

Institutional staff development programs are extremely important, but there needs to be a wider system of acknowledging the valuable role played by committed, creative and innovative teachers. Globally, good teaching tends to be less valued and acknowledged than research by universities, particularly as international ranking systems give more weight to research.

Now 22 South African universities, supported by the country’s Department of Higher Education and Training, and the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa, have come together to test a possible new approach that’s been successful elsewhere in the world.

A new way of thinking

The Teaching Advancement at Universities (TAU) Fellowship program has three major aims.

The first involves contributing towards the enhancement of teaching and learning in South African higher education. The program is working to develop a cadre of academics across institutions and disciplines as scholars, leaders and mentors in their institutions or disciplinary fields.

Second, it hopes to contribute towards the definition of what “teaching excellence” means in a variety of institutional settings.

Its third aim is to extend senior academics’ knowledge and experience of educational development. These are individuals who have been acknowledged for their teaching excellence.

But what makes this program different? How can its developers and champions be so sure that it will deliver on its aims?

International precedent

Importantly, the program does not exist in a vacuum. Similar projects exist in Canada and the US, and TAU’s management team visited these before the South African equivalent kicked off formally in July 2015.

Another similar program is the International Fellowship in Medical Education. It has been running for 16 years and takes in fellows from around the world who are interested in setting up regional networks that focus on scholarship of teaching and learning in the health sciences. Such networks exist in places like India, Brazil and South Africa.

All three programs have been evaluated at least once. Recognising the value of feedback, TAU’s organisers have set up an intensive evaluation project to run alongside the program.

An expert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison – the director of its Office of Professional Instruction and Development, La Vonne Cornell-Swanson – is participating in the evaluation. TAU will also be benchmarked against the Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars Program.

Deep engagement

Another important element of the program is that it requires a long-term commitment. Participants sign up for 13 months during which they continuously engage with core issues related to teaching and learning.

There are three residential units when academics come together for five days at a time – a sort of retreat during which they can really focus. The idea is that participants develop a broader understanding of the South African higher education context while building a network of people they can draw upon for advice, support and collaboration in the future.

Most of the participants in this cohort are senior staff who have institutional experience and clout. Hopefully this will allow them to drive real changes in teaching and learning at their universities.

The first cohort of TAU fellows. Supplied

There has been excellent feedback and very good buy-in. Of the 52 academics who enrolled for the pilot project, 50 attended the second residential session. This bodes well for a good completion rate.

Participants have said that they particularly appreciate being able to learn about different universities’ contexts and challenges. Many appreciate the chance to learn about teaching from their colleagues: some clearly feel very isolated at their own institutions and welcome the opportunity to be with others who are passionate about facilitating learning.

Looking to the future

So far, TAU reads like a success story. But the true test will be the fellows’ impact on their home institutions when the pilot project is done. It will also be crucial to see whether institutions keep collaborating even when the fellows are not actively working together.

There must also be discussions about future funding sources. The Department of Higher Education and Training awarded a substantial grant to the pilot project, so it is fully funded and universities bear no cost. Should this change in future? If it does, less well funded institutions might be forced to opt out. That would be to the program’s detriment.

Whatever happens, and whether TAU becomes institutionalised or not, academics clearly need opportunities to be acknowledged and empowered. They must be equipped to respond adequately to the challenges of the times.