Technology bridging divides

19 September 2014
Mobile apps developed by UCT's Samsung Mobile Innovation Lab are helping people learn new languages and empowering students to make more informed sexual choices.
Mobile apps developed by UCT's Samsung Mobile Innovation Lab are helping people learn new languages and empowering students to make more informed sexual choices.

Advances in technology have significantly shaped how we connect and share information. They have also enabled new ways of bridging old divides – of geography, culture, language and experience. The Faculty of Commerce is harnessing new technologies, not only to reach out to potential students across Africa, but also to reach across gaps experienced by students who currently form part of the UCT community.

Accounting gets YouTube treatment

Complex accounting concepts don't get lost in translation, thanks to a collaborative project with Wits and Walter Sisulu universities. UCT's College of Accounting is using online video clips to explain difficult concepts not only in English, but also in Xhosa and Zulu.

The clips are an attempt to facilitate not only a thorough understanding of a concept, but also to assist students in their understanding of the concept in English – the language of business and assessment.

This project is headed by Jacqui Kew, a senior lecturer in accounting, and funded by FASSET, the Finance and Accounting Services Sector Education and Training Authority. UCT's university partners are Walter Sisulu and Wits universities, whose staff are responsible for the Xhosa and Zulu translation and presentation. Video clips are intended not only for UCT students; they will be hosted on a website accessible to students and lecturers throughout South Africa.

Each clip contains a scripted lecture combined with an explanatory graphic. Staff from the College of Accounting identified the problematic concepts, scripted the English lectures, and devised the graphic. GetSmarter, the private-sector partner, was responsible for filming and designing the graphics for each video, helping to make the concepts come alive.

Kew asserts that through initiatives like these, as well as Across Africa, the faculty "hopes to reach a far greater number of students than we are able to at UCT itself. The college acknowledges there are going to be changes in how we approach young people. If we want to access more people, and access them in a way that is relevant to the younger generation, we're going to have to make use of technology".

Success a mere click away

Class participation is not high on students' to-do lists – especially first-years, who could find themselves in class with up to 400 other students.

Tim Low, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Commerce's Education Development Unit, ensures he gets feedback from his students by employing 'clickers' that electronically and anonymously convey students' answers to class questions, thereby promoting class participation.

Low, recipient of a Distinguished Teacher Award in 2011, teaches mathematics and statistics, and has been using this innovative teaching tool for the past four years. With it, he is able to identify almost instantly where students' understanding of a concept or process is lacking.

"Instead of talking down to students in the class, the constant interaction creates an environment of 'we're in it together'," says Low, whose biggest classes have up to 250 students. For the most part, the 'clickers' are used for revisions, where they not only provide an understanding of students' knowledge, but also teach time management, especially where multiple-choice questions are involved, explains Low.

Mobile app to promote safe sex

A need for information about contraception has given rise to the development of a mobile application to help students practise safe sex. The UCT Safe Sex App was developed at the UCT Samsung Mobile Innovation Laboratory, in conjunction with students and mentors from Baxter Residence.

Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma, Baxter's warden, found in her interaction with Baxter mentors (senior students giving guidance to their younger counterparts) that the question that kept coming up had to do with acquiring the morning-after pill. "This was surprising, as I was asking them about perceptions of safety and sexual violence for my research," she said.

After a series of workshops related to sex education, it was decided to approach the UCT Samsung Mobile Innovation Laboratory to develop a platform where such sensitive information could be accessed by students in a more private setting.

"All credit for this initiative must go to the students. They took the material made available through HAICU (UCT's HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit) and the Triangle Project [a Mowbray-based non-profit offering professional services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, their partners and their families] and simplified the English. They took the pictures that demonstrate the correct use of male and female condoms using models provided by HAICU, which on the app are combined with written instructions," explains Duma.

Towards the end of August 2014, the app – launched in May – had been downloaded to almost 5 000 phones. The next step is voice instruction, to go with the pictures. Duma reports that the Baxter house committee is also talking about creating awareness of the app at high schools.

Free apps make SA languages easier to learn

Learning an African language is now as easy as switching on your mobile device, with the help of a suite of applications developed at the UCT Samsung Mobile Innovation Laboratory.

The idea for the Learn an African Language Apps (LALA) came to Professor Jean-Paul van Belle while he was attending Dr Tessa Dowling's lecture at the UCT 2014 Summer School, on learning Xhosa in 45 minutes. "I was thinking up projects for our Samsung Mobile Innovation Lab, and thought a simple app would be a perfect way to get people to talk to each other," says Van Belle, of the Department of Information Systems.

Dowling is a senior lecturer in African Languages, and her course material – which includes sound clips of common phrases in Nguni and Sotho languages – was used in the development of the apps.

Despite an extremely busy academic schedule, Van Belle wrote the application software over the course of three weekends. "It was really fun coding. It was great to be in the flow of programming. As an academic, I don't get this opportunity much anymore," he adds.

Story by Abigail Calata, photo by Michael Hammond.

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