Ready, CET, go–Mellon grant boosts new centre

02 August 2004

Grants totalling approximately R10-million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will place UCT at the forefront of cutting-edge technological projects.

The university's commitment to enabling the innovative and effective use of information and communication technologies for teaching and learning in its courses has received a major boost with a grant of US$1-million (approximately R6-million) from the foundation.

The grant, to UCT's new Centre for Educational Technology (CET), will build on and extend the work of the Multimedia Education Group (MEG) and Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) in the Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS). These structures will cease to exist in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

Based in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), CET's brief is to focus, across faculty boundaries, on matters concerning the relationship between new technologies and teaching and learning at UCT.

"Things are buzzing at the moment," said Laura Czerniewicz, director of CET. "It is enormously exciting because the new centre is off to a good start and pilot projects that would've ended will now be taken further.

"With regard to teaching and learning, the question is no longer whether computers should be used, but rather, how can they add value to the educational experience. At CET, we are grappling with how we can most effectively use networked multimedia computers to enhance teaching and learning in a transforming higher education context."

According to Czerniewicz, the grant will allow CET to respond to key imperatives within UCT over a three-year period from 2005 to 2007.

"Funding from the Mellon Foundation was requested for five inter-related projects, one of which uses prevalent mobile technologies to support teaching and learning in higher education curricula."

It has been a long process for Czerniewicz and her team, who began liaising with Mellon over 18 months ago.

"Our dialogue got more intense during the last six months and it involved a lot of work. But we were lucky to have people like Geoff Marks from the communication and development department advising us.

"And while I was drawing organograms with dotted lines late at night, CHED dean, Nan Yeld, was very encouraging," she added.

In addition to the grant, UCT has committed staffing resources to the centre. Four new, full-time funded posts have been allocated (two in 2004 and two in 2005), while three associated existing posts have been transferred to CET from other departments, thus creating a solid core of positions.

The centre aims to find, develop and integrate cost-effective computer-based solutions to teaching and learning challenges.

"These challenges include large classes, student diversity and inadequate preparation for the academic environment," Czerniewicz said. "Technological solutions need to exploit the qualities of the digital environment rather than replicate contact environments."

UCT staff also stand to benefit from the Mellon grant. A major aim of CET will be to support, mentor and collaborate with staff as they integrate technologies into their courses and programmes.

Professor Heinz Rüther's proposal was also on the receiving end of the Mellon Foundation's generosity. Rüther, from UCT's geomatics department, has been granted US$550 000 (approximately R3-million) to create an integrated digital database of architectural cultural heritage sites in Africa.

Recognising the deteriorating conditions of many of these sites and their relevance for the understanding and interpretation of humankind's history, the African Cultural Heritage Database will create a permanent record of historical architectural structures and African towns in digital form.

The foundation also granted US$82 000 (approximately R500 000) to digitise the university's Bolus Herbarium material and incorporate it into the African Plant Initiative database.

UCT's herbarium is the oldest and largest functioning herbarium connected to an academic institution in the Southern Hemisphere and the fourth largest functioning herbarium in southern Africa.

With its 320 000 specimens and richness in Type material, the herbarium remains a highly valuable research resource, particularly for scholars doing research within the Cape Floristic Region.

The African Plant Initiative database aims to create a web-based resource, drawn from various regions of the world, one that will enable students, researchers and scholars to access on-line digitised information on the Type material of plant specimens originating in Africa.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that makes grants in the areas of higher education, museums and art conservation, performing arts and conservation and the environment.

The foundation seeks to strengthen institutions' core capacities rather than encourage them to take on ancillary activities, and it seeks to stay with programmes long enough to achieve meaningful results.

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