Teaching and Learning

11 November 2021 Read time >10 min.

Q&A Associate Professor Lis Lange
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic posed some significant challenges for the higher education sector in South Africa and in the world. Take us through some of the emergency contingency plans UCT put in place to ensure teaching and learning continued smoothly.

Last year was unlike any other year we have ever experienced here at UCT. Despite the uncertainty and the anxiety that accompanied the global pandemic, we needed to shift gear quickly to ensure that our students could continue the academic programme from their homes.

With the help of our colleagues in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), we implemented emergency remote teaching and learning. We devised a temporary learning methodology that makes use of low-tech remote teaching, uses technical teaching strategies that promote asynchronous learning and allows learning to take place in different environments using little bandwidth.

We provided laptop computers to all students on financial aid and ensured that all other needs had been met, and that a lack of access to an appropriate device was not an obstacle to learning. The commitment from academic and professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff and the students has been unwavering. We thank them for their dedication.

In light of these circumstances, what were some of the decisions taken by the university to ensure that students completed the academic year successfully?

From the very beginning we focused on how to offer students an equitable learning experience. We have taken particular care to prevent the remote teaching and learning experience from reinforcing or increasing existing inequalities that some may experience.

We took into account that students were only able to engage in 30 hours of remote learning per week. To allow students to settle in, other decisions we took included:

  • adopting continuous assessment and suspending invigilated exams for courses during the first semester
  • adopting, with the exception of the Faculty of Law and exit level courses, the PASS/FAIL final marks in F courses
  • no academic exclusions during 2020.

For the first time in the Teaching & Learning Conference’s history, the event proceeded virtually last year. How would you describe its success under these conditions?

I think that by then [August 2020], hosting and attending virtual events was the norm for many of us. I’m proud to announce that the conference was a huge success, even though we missed the in-person interaction. It was an opportunity for us to think creatively and out-of-the-box, and to draw participants who would otherwise not have been able to make it onto campus.

We hosted an engaging four-day conference, which included discussions and debates on an array of topics such as tutors’ perspectives on emergency remote teaching and learning, how UCT’s d-school was forced to reinvent itself amid the pandemic, and the global shifts in academic practice.

Many consider teaching a thankless job. How did UCT honour teachers in 2020 for their commitment to the field?

We also launched the UCT Open Textbook Award to incentivise innovation in teaching and learning, to recognise the efforts of open textbook authors and to promote the creation and reuse of open educational resources.

What stands out as a teaching and learning highlight for 2020?

It would have to be a project led by our very own Dr Rosalie Tostevin in the Department of Geological Sciences. Her incredible work involves translating segments of South Africa’s rich geological record into official languages other than English – starting with isiXhosa.

The project is a milestone for UCT and aims to better represent the diversity of languages spoken in South Africa and to help connect people who have historically been excluded from scientific discourses with their geological heritage.

Amrita Pande’s classroom is her theatre

Educator-performer Assoc Prof Amrita Pande.

A sought-after supervisor, an active researcher and a highly skilled teacher; a leader on administrative matters in UCT’s Faculty of Humanities and the co-head of the Department of Sociology; a mother of two, who juggled remote teaching while homeschooling her children during lockdown ... These are just some of the many roles of Associate Professor Amrita Pande.

Pande has been recognised for her outstanding teaching and contribution to the promotion of teaching-and-learning excellence at UCT. She is one of four recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA).

She said passion for the subject is what makes a good teacher, along with empathy, humility and the desire to listen, be challenged and engage in dialogue. She always attempts to bring to her classroom transdisciplinary research and training, as well as interactive theatre and laughter. Pande described her DTA recognition as a pleasure and a privilege, and the best thing that happened to her during an otherwise dismal 2020.

View the interview

Teaching requires passion and commitment

Prof Andrew Argent said his classes are interactive and engaging.

In a career that spans almost 42 years, Professor Andrew Argent, the head of paediatrics and child health at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, remains motivated by those who manage to achieve “remarkable things” despite countless odds. He is inspired by his students, who ask the difficult questions, and his colleagues, who “keep on caring, who keep on giving and endlessly seek the best for their patients”.

For his contribution to teaching and learning, UCT presented Argent with a 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award. Most of his teaching has been at patients’ bedsides with groups of about two to six students – focusing on each individual patient.

He said it’s essential that teachers care about their students, show commitment and ensure they receive the necessary support. Providing them with a fair assessment as they pass through courses is equally vital. He described his teaching style as interactive and said he appreciates that his students ask questions that challenge him. 

His DTA is affirmation that teaching is important and demonstrates that a critical part of university life is providing an environment where everyone is learning and developing. 

View the interview

‘Teaching is like creating ripples in a pond’

Assoc Prof Romy Parker

After working as a physiotherapist with specialist expertise in pain and pain management in South Africa, the United Kingdom and United States for several years, UCT’s Associate Professor Romy Parker decided to return to South Africa. Parker, who was awarded a 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award, said teaching is like creating ripples in a pond. She became a teacher because she wanted to make a difference and extend her range and impact.

Among her proudest moments as a teacher has been working with students who have struggled for multiple reasons early on in their undergraduate degrees. Developing relationships with them, walking beside them as they grow, and seeing those who return to UCT to pursue postgraduate qualifications makes her most happy. 

Her teaching approach is learner-centred, which means that it’s all about the person, not about the information, and it focuses on engaging with students by accessing a range of tools. Receiving a DTA means everything to her.

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Tessa Dowling: ‘groovy and innovative’

Dr Tessa Dowling

The “groovy and innovative” teacher, Dr Tessa Dowling, is one of UCT’s 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award recipients. Dowling teaches isiXhosa  as a second language in the isiXhosa Communication stream – all courses from first to third year. She also teaches in the Honours in African Languages and Literatures programme.

For Dowling, there are a few fundamentals that make a good teacher. These include flexibility, humility, humour and a willingness to change to suit the needs of different students. She described her teaching style as “electric”, familiar and friendly.

Dowling loves students who make her laugh and those who are self-motivated; second-language students who laugh at their own errors; and first-language students who mix isiXhosa with English and Afrikaans in creative and expressive ways. What she likes least are students who worry too much about marks and too little about why they are learning the language. 

View the interview

ʻA+ teacherʼ wins Stella Clarke Teachers’ Award

Herbert Gumbi
Hebert Gumbi outside his classroom in Vryheid in KZN.

Hebert Gumbi’s unique teaching style and his ability to connect with students despite their academic level makes him “an inspiration, an A+ teacher” and the deserving recipient of the 2020 Stella Clark Teachers’ Award.

Gumbi teaches accounting at Mathunjwa High School in Vryheid in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). He accepted his award from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng on 4 August 2020. The prestigious accolade pays homage to teachers who have made a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children from marginalised communities in South Africa.

Gumbi said he believes in creating a “structured and organised” classroom environment and ensures that his learners completely understand the subject material, which enables them to help one another. He believes that inclusivity and a strong in-class community spirit are key to a good learning environment.

Learners value his integrated teaching approach, which includes roping them in to assist with his lessons and to teach the rest of the class – this while he takes a seat at a desk like an active participant.

The trick to having happy and engaged learners is to always treat them with respect and compassion – Gumbi’s top priority. More than that, he said, he tries to understand each learner’s individuality, as well as their preferred method of learning.

Sometimes his role extends beyond the classroom too. “I don’t just teach them by equipping them with the skills and knowledge in my subject. I also teach them to be independent, responsible citizens.”

View the interview

UCT MOOCs in the top 200 – again

UCT has seen a doubling in the number of people completing its MOOCs in the last six months compared to the total since the first UCT MOOC was launched in 2015.

Five UCT massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been included on the 2020 Class Central Best Online Courses of All Time list, which ranks the top 200 online courses from across the globe.

This list is based on more than 125 000 learner reviews globally. Currently there are more than 15 000 MOOCs from almost 1 000 universities worldwide, and the Class Central top 200 list features courses from about 100 universities in 23 countries. The MOOCs that made the list are: Medicine and the arts: Humanising healthcare; What is a mind?; Extinctions: Past and present; Education for all: Disability, diversity and inclusion; and Understanding Clinical Research: Behind the statistics.

Massive uptake in MOOC participation

The 'Medicine and the Arts' MOOC explored the intersections of medicine, medical anthropology and the creative arts. (The three HIV body maps were made by three women in the Bambanani Group, and translated into mosaic by Lovell Friedman).

Since the start of global lockdowns in 2020, UCT has witnessed a sharp increase in massive open online course (MOOC) participation. According to Janet Small, course development manager at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), MOOC enrolments increased by roughly 35 000 participants since the beginning of March 2020.

Small said approximately 10 000 people enrolled in Understand Clinical Research, a course that helps people brush up on their medical statistics knowledge – in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The MOOC Becoming a Changemaker, by UCT’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Business, was one of 75 courses highlighted by Coursera as “especially gratifying” during the global lockdown, and also attracted a large audience.

To date, UCT has created 23 MOOCs, which are hosted on international platforms. The course material of all UCT MOOCs is released under the Creative Commons licence, which makes it free to share.

New MOOC prioritises visually impaired learners

MOOC enrolments increased by roughly 35 000 participants since the beginning of March in the wake of global lockdowns.

In 2020 UCT added a massive open online course (MOOC) to its portfolio of short courses in an effort to help educators who lack the skill set to teach children with disabilities.

Teaching Children with a Visual Impairment: Creating Empowering Classrooms is tailored towards school-level educators and offers teachers the insight they need to create classroom environments that accommodate the learning needs of visually impaired children. The MOOC discourages segregated schooling and encourages a more inclusive and integrated approach to learning.

It adopts a first-person experience and has been designed with both the visually impaired learner and the teacher in mind. It aims to help teachers familiarise themselves with the life of a learner with a visual impairment and “overcome some of the barriers of difference”.

The MOOC also helps teachers to apply the Expanded Course Curriculum – a collection of content areas they can integrate into the core curriculum to give visually impaired learners access to the knowledge sighted learners gain through observation.

During the four-week short course, visually impaired professionals share their childhood classroom stories with teachers and discuss the challenges they experienced. These personal anecdotes are meant to help teachers understand the complexities visually impaired learners face in the classroom, to help them create inclusive and accessible teaching spaces.

WOOP app now in isiXhosa

WOOP was identified as a system that could help UCT students achieve their academic targets.

UCT marked a milestone with the translation of the wish, outcome, obstacle, plan (WOOP) web application into isiXhosa. The app is a self-regulating, goal-setting intervention that is available in 12 main international languages. isiXhosa is the first African vernacular language translation.

In 2018, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation Professor Loretta Feris, and members of UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development and the Residence Life Division began working with WOOP originator Professor Gabriele Oettingen, from New York University and the University of Hamburg. A free goal-setting and realisation app, WOOP was identified as a system that could help UCT students, especially those in the first-tier residences, achieve their academic targets.

isiXhosa was chosen for the WOOP translation as it is one of three languages most spoken at UCT. Oettingen has since agreed to UCT translating the WOOP templates into all other official South African languages.

Rethinking the purpose of education

Assoc Prof Maha Bali.

One of the consequences of COVID-19 is that academics have been compelled to take a fresh look at the attributes and purpose of university education. This was recognised by Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, as an effective launchpad from which to assess and evaluate the future of universities.

Associate Professor Bali led the keynote workshop on the final day of the annual Teaching and Learning Conference organised by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT). The conference was held virtually in September 2020.

Bali encouraged delegates to interrogate the status quo. The idea, she said, was to examine how the roles of academics and educators have changed, and she discussed how new perceptions and beliefs about the purpose of university education will influence critical values and principles in the future. Her workshop touched on issues around the need to expand spaces for more equitable and diverse learning, and also brought to the fore the importance of achieving social justice by removing barriers to entry to universities of the future.

“The objective is to explore how the pandemic has influenced beliefs about the purpose of university education and key principles it should embody and promote, followed by steps towards sharing and creating practices that will assist academics to meet that rethought purpose,” said Bali.

Multilingual classrooms boost learning

Language is often neglected as one of the major causes of high dropout rates in schools, said Albertyn and Guzula. 

Just 23% of South Africans identify English or Afrikaans as their home language, yet 100% of children are expected to navigate their school years in these languages exclusively. This is hampering learning and comprehension, and probably fuelling high dropout rates in schools. This according to Louise Albertyn, senior adviser to the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business (Education Innovation portfolio), and Xolisa Guzula, a lecturer with the UCT School of Education.

Many of the learners who start school never make it to matric. Roughly 48% of Grade 2s in 2009 did not write matric (full-time) in 2019. Language is often neglected as one of the major causes of this high dropout rate. According to Albertyn and Guzula, language and how learners are taught (pedagogy) are major factors which need to be addressed simultaneously in the education of bi-/multilingual children.

Much of the high failure and dropout rate is, in part, linked to the widespread sudden transition to monolingual English education after only three years of formal schooling in the home languages, as well as to the narrow skills-based conception of literacy and pedagogy.

Children are often positioned as deficient English monolinguals rather than resourceful bilingual learners. Schools should formulate their language policy through their school governing body in accordance with the South African legal framework to decentralise education and language policies. But policymakers argue that multilingual communication practices (code-switching – moving back and forth between two languages; translanguaging and translation) should be disallowed because learners have to write assessments in English and code-switching will “water down” languages. However, there is strong evidence that code-switching or translanguaging increases learner participation, inclusion and lesson comprehension, and hones learners’ translation, interpreting and metalinguistic skills.

Learners who are allowed to translanguage and code-switch in the classroom are better able to convey their knowledge of subject matter to their classmates and teachers. All of this points to a strong case for the development and implementation of bi- and multilingual approaches and resources to enable children to learn using their most familiar language resources while also developing proficiency in English.

Realigning computer science with societal needs

Prof Hussein Suleman, head of the Department of Computer Science and now a full professor in UCT’s School of Information Technology.

Computer science involves numerous fast-evolving fields, such as algorithm and software design, making it difficult for computer scientists to keep up with developments. But computer science is faced with another more pressing reality: It is overwhelmingly motivated by profit and does not focus nearly enough on human and values-driven innovation.

This is particularly concerning in low-resource environments like South Africa where computer science is often necessary for the pursuit of human development. But how should computer scientists respond? And what will they produce if it is not for profit?

For UCT’s Professor Hussein Suleman, the response should be a return to the roots of the discipline, and to realign computer science with societal needs. By removing the profit motive, he argued, computer scientists can provide increased value for society.

Professor Suleman shared these views during the Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture on 30 September 2020. His lecture tackled the challenges facing the field, presented possible solutions and interventions, and advocated for a return to roots.

Among the challenges facing the field are what Suleman referred to as the “capitalism of software development” and the technology industry’s focus on profit. He said there’s also a need for realistic expectations and an understanding of what those in the field can achieve when it comes to solving problems, whether it be poverty, unemployment, climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As computer scientists, we need to see ourselves as tool builders. We are not going to solve problems within specific domains, but what we are going to do is build the tools for others to solve problems, which can have a far greater impact,” he said.

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Translating the geological record into isiXhosa

UCT’s Dr Rosalie Tostevin and her team will translate geological terms as part of their project Reclaiming the Rocks: Ukuthetha ngezifundo zomhlaba ngesiXhosa.

A project led by UCT lecturer Dr Rosalie Tostevin is translating segments of South Africa’s rich geological record into official languages other than English – starting with isiXhosa.

The project is called Reclaiming the Rocks: Ukuthetha ngezifundo zomhlaba ngesiXhosa and is based in UCT’s Department of Geological Sciences where Tostevin is a lecturer and runs the Ancient Life and Environments laboratory. The project aims to better represent the diversity of languages spoken in South Africa and help connect people who have historically been excluded from scientific discourse with their geological heritage.

The team will begin with translations into isiXhosa as it is one of UCT’s official languages and is the most widely spoken among the department’s staff and students. The project is already receiving international recognition and is a recipient of the European Geosciences Union’s public engagement grants. These grants are awarded to outreach projects that aim to raise awareness of geosciences outside the scientific community.

“We are keen to celebrate our collective linguistic skills and do a better job of representing South Africa’s many languages,” said Tostevin.

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