For almost a decade Sukaina Walji has been a valuable member of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) family, and in January 2022 she was appointed captain of the ship. It’s been three months and a few days since she stepped into this new role and already her head is buzzing with innovative ideas.
Walji is clear about her tenure. She is dedicated to working collaboratively with academic staff to build meaningful learning experiences that will shape UCT’s teaching into the future. The COVID-19 pandemic advanced this work. Emergency remote teaching and learning implemented at the onset of the pandemic catalysed (and forced) creative and innovative thinking. Further, she said it also provided a vantage point from which to reflect on and review new learning methodologies and imaginative ways of teaching and learning beyond the pandemic.
Walji’s appointment came at a time when the department had been hard at work to achieve part of UCT’s Vision 2030: to attain a digitally enabled education system that supports student success in inclusive and equitable ways. And the groundwork has started. Since March 2020 the centre has played a pivotal role in ensuring that emergency remote teaching and learning was effectively implemented and enabled and that academics received the support they needed to continue the academic programme amid the pandemic.
“I look forward to leading this exceptional team and to achieving great things together.”
“But now we are out of an emergency, and we are in a new phase of growth and expansion. I look forward to being at the forefront of these plans. But most of all, I look forward to leading this exceptional team and to achieving great things together,” she said.
Stimulating, exhilarating environment
Walji joined UCT in 2014 just as the university kick-started its massive open online course (MOOC) project. She started out as the MOOC project manager at CILT, a department based in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED). Since then, she has worked on various digital education projects and served as project manager, learning designer and research communications advisor. In 2019 she was appointed as head of CILT’s course and curriculum team and while there she managed both the learning design team and digital media unit. Soon thereafter, in 2020, Walji accepted the role of acting deputy director and later acting director of the department – a stepping stone towards her latest promotion.
“I feel immensely privileged to be heading up CILT. It’s such a unique space with a very special group of committed and compassionate people who are and will continue to make significant impacts in order to help the university create and achieve equitable teaching and learning spaces,” she said.
Facilitating critical conversations
There are many sides to Walji’s new role. Currently, she is focused on facilitating critical conversations with the campus community on just how digital technologies can benefit both students and academics at UCT. Mapping out exactly what a digitally enabled education system will look like forms part of these discussions.
“Digital technologies have a crucial role to play in our future as a university and offer many more possibilities for engaged and participatory teaching and learning,” she said. “We need our students and staff to be comfortable with digital technologies [because] it shapes how we live right now. Our graduates will also likely enter digitally enabled workplaces … and they need to be prepared for that.”
UCT’s recent decision to replace Vula, the university’s current online learning platform with Brightspace, a new digital learning platform, is an important milestone. She said updating the university’s digital learning platforms means that course designers and teaching staff are able to re-imagine and review how courses are designed and presented across a continuum of in-person, blended and online modes. It’s also an opportune moment to evaluate how to link certain processes and infrastructure to provide students with the best possible learning experiences.
Ways of working
Because CILT is embedded in UCT’s teaching and learning ecosystem, Walji said it is important that the department adopts a flexible and multidisciplinary approach and works collaboratively with academics across faculties and as a department within CHED. Therefore, in her work she prefers to adopt a systems mindset, one that recognises that CILT contributes to UCT in various ways and at different levels.
“We also work at systems level across the institution – understanding that teaching, learning and research is a holistic and relational endeavour that needs the attention of multiple stakeholders.”
“We work with individual academics and course teams. We also work at systems level across the institution – understanding that teaching, learning and research is a holistic and relational endeavour that needs the attention of multiple stakeholders,” Walji said.
Her role also extends beyond UCT’s borders and involves ongoing engagement with higher education institutions in the country and internationally on what the future of digital education could look like.
As her department sets the wheels in motion to achieve UCT’s Vision 2030, Walji said one of her main focuses will be on redesigning and rethinking curriculum and teaching strategies that prioritise the needs of diverse students and promote inclusive teaching and assessment practices.
Managing this change on the horizon and supporting CILT staff as they grow in ways that foster creativity and sustainability and implementing processes that will allow the department to scale at a good pace is on her agenda too. In a constantly changing world, Walji is clear about one thing – she loves her job. The tight deadlines, the collaboration that goes hand in hand with the role and conceptualising new projects – all of which are in plentiful supply at CILT – makes her job exciting.
“There are very few ready-made answers to the demands and complexities of running a teaching and learning centre in a university undergoing digital transformation. We have to adopt ways of working that are responsive to the immediate needs of UCT’s teaching community, while keeping a focus on medium-term planning,” she said.
Not just the director
But more than the director, she’s also a colleague, a friend and a mentor, who believes in the importance of creating a human-centred working culture that values everyone’s perspective.
“I want CILT to be a place where everyone can be the best version of themselves. I want it to be a welcoming and vibrant space where we deliver an exceptionally high standard of work. But at the same time, it must be an environment where trust and cohesion thrive and where we support each other. We’ll need this mindset for the opportunities and challenges ahead,” she said.
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