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Rethinking curriculum approaches in challenging times

Higher education has been in the spotlight in South Africa, with students demanding greater access – including epistemological access – and decolonising of the curriculum. In the press, too, have been the unsatisfactory completion rates of students.

All this places a huge responsibility on academics and challenges them to rethink much of which has hitherto been taken for granted.

Institutional staff development programmes in teaching and learning may offer answers for some; but the workshops and programmes typically involved have a history of attracting only the already converted, and hence often have little broader or institutional impact.

Seriously rethinking approaches to the curriculum, and to teaching and learning, requires an approach to staff development which can move it beyond the individual or the individual institution.

Staff development should draw on often hidden or unacknowledged expertise, give the necessary institutional status to teaching and learning, and at the same time build collaboration between institutions.

The Teaching Advancement at Universities Fellowships Programme, known as TAU, has set its sights on these ambitious goals.

Teaching advancement fellowship programme

TAU seeks to build a cadre of teaching fellows across a wide range of disciplines and at institutions across the country over a 13-month programme, involving three residential block weeks, individual projects undertaken in own teaching and learning settings, and group projects.

The Department of Higher Education and Training has acknowledged the significance of this endeavour by awarding a substantial DHET Collaborative Teaching Development Grant for TAU 2015-16 as a pilot.

The project was originally conceptualised by colleagues on the executive committee of the Higher Educational Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (Heltasa). The management team comprises colleagues from all over South Africa, including from the Council for Higher Education. It is managed in the office of the chair of teaching and learning at the University of Johannesburg.

It is the intention that, should the present pilot be successful, it will become a permanent project that highlights and promotes the value of quality teaching.

The TAU Fellowships Programme has the following aims.

  • Firstly, to contribute towards the enhancement of teaching and learning in higher education in South Africa by supporting the development of a cadre of academics across institutions and disciplines as scholars, leaders and mentors in teaching and learning in their institutions or disciplinary fields.

  • Secondly, to popularise the concept and contribute towards the definition of what teaching excellence means in varied institutional settings.

  • Thirdly, to extend the knowledge and experience of educational development among experienced senior academics who have been acknowledged for their teaching excellence.

The programme seeks to achieve this by maximising participant engagement, and by promoting collaboration across universities and disciplines. It is guided by the TAU principles of authentic learning and reflective teaching, and of self-directed and collaborative learning.

What makes TAU different?

The content of the programme is managed in terms of three core themes: excellent teachers; change agents; and scholars of teaching and learning.

So what makes TAU different? What makes this national, state-funded and inter-institutional programme special?

First and foremost, participants commit to a 13-month period of continuous engagement with core issues relating to teaching and learning, with the three retreat-type five-day residential units allowing for focused engagement.

The residential units do include some workshop-type inputs (given in part by the participants themselves) on topics relating to the core theme. But these inputs are not left in isolation – and hence speedily forgotten; rather they can immediately be deepened and integrated into the participants’ developing projects.

In addition, TAU participants are ideally staff with seniority, institutional experience and ‘clout’, who as TAU fellows will be expected and able to act as role models for teaching excellence in their institutions. Participants are given guidance in leading change, in developing policy, in making presentations to senate.

Higher education institutions from across the country are involved. The 52 participants represent 22 universities, and in future rounds participants will be solicited from all public universities, including the new universities.

Inter-institutional collaboration is promoted by placing participants in themed enquiry groups which collaborate in drawing individual projects into a joint poster. Collaboration is further promoted by sensitising participants to the day-to-day realities and challenges at other higher education institutions, and building a sense of ‘we are all in this together’.

The groups are facilitated by 11 ‘advisors’, who are experts in teaching and learning, also drawn from across the range of South African higher education institutions.

The individual projects, too, assist in building community across institutions and disciplines: participants are curious about the projects of others and are expected to raise questions and comment.

Achievements so far

To date, 21 months after the funding was approved, the programme has been set up, with participation from the 22 higher education institutions, and two residential units have been run. The final session will be from 10-14 July and final assignments will be submitted by the end of July. This means that from August, the project will see emerging its first batch of TAU fellows.

After a new call for funding from the DHET, a proposal will be submitted for a second round of TAU, which should take place in 2018.

Response has been positive and even enthusiastic. There has been excellent buy-in and engagement with the programme – out of the original 52 participants, 50 attended the second residential unit – and a good completion rate.

As one participant said: “This has been incredible so far. I need a few days to really reflect on the whole process thus far because it has really had a massive impact on me as an individual. I am also trying to think about how I can take this back to my institution and make an impact there.”

Interestingly, it has been possible to keep together the very broad range of individuals, with diverse histories of engagement with teaching and learning.

Aspects of the programme that participants particularly appreciate are the broadening of their horizons and exposure to information about conditions at other South African universities, which may offer different but equally demanding challenges.

Many have expressed appreciation for opportunities to learn about teaching from colleagues, and the space to pay attention to issues of teaching and learning in a retreat-like atmosphere. Many clearly experience isolation at their home institutions and welcome the opportunity to be with others who are passionate about learning facilitation.

To quote another participant: “I am very grateful for this opportunity, thank you. Finally to engage with other excellent academics who are as passionate and driven as you are has been very valuable. It has also been enlightening, has re-ignited a sense of 'yes I can', and 'I am really valued and appreciated'.”

A learning experience

Setting up and running TAU has already involved much learning by the management team. This began with an exploratory visit to similar projects in Canada and the United States, which allowed TAU to benefit from the longer-term experience of established projects.

Ongoing evaluation of the residential weeks has sensitised us to the need for a balanced programme, allowing both for high-level inputs and for time for thinking, interacting with other participants, and simply chilling out.

We now recognise the strong desire of the participants to learn from each other, and for top quality performance by facilitators.

We anticipate a successful conclusion of the pilot; but the true test will be the impact of our TAU fellows on their home institutions; and whether collaboration between institutions is sustained beyond the programme itself.

A big challenge will be the identification of future sources of funding, as the residential units – an essential component of the programme – add substantially to the cost.

Is a fully-funded model (as in this pilot) feasible looking ahead, or should higher education institutions be expected to bear part of the cost? And would that then mean less well-endowed institutions would be forced to opt out of TAU, to the detriment of the programme as a whole?

Whether TAU becomes institutionalised or not, there is clearly a need for opportunities for academics to become acknowledged and empowered, to equip them to respond adequately to the challenges of our times. TAU is already taking leadership in this regard.

Professor Brenda Leibowitz is chair of teaching and learning in the education faculty at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, and is convenor of the TAU Fellowships Programme. Professor Elizabeth de Kadt is a higher education consultant for the University of Johannesburg, and she and Precious Sipuka, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg, administer TAU.
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