Learning about Unisa and South Africa

My colleagues and I are currently in Pretoria, South Africa, to attend Unisa’s Teaching and Learning Festival 2011. We have been asked to put on a week of workshops, due to start tomorrow (Monday) morning.

Me at Unisa

Standing outside the festival venue

Last Thursday and Friday we attended the festival symposium, which had excellent keynote papers from George Siemens, Gilly Salmon, Catherina Ngugi and Ormond Simpson. The Unisa delegates appeared to take a lot from these talks, judging from the questions raised and comments made in the concluding panel session.

Like so many HE institutions, Unisa, an open distance learning university, is facing a crossroads.  Burgeoning student numbers (374,000 for 2011) has meant current structures are no longer able to cope. It is hoped new technology and new approaches may provide the means by which the staff can continue to offer an education with a national and international reputation (Nelson Mandela is a Unisa graduate). BDRA may pay a small part in this change.

Perhaps the memory of the cynical and depressing summer riots in the UK has coloured my thinking, but I feel South Africa is going places. The people seem pragmatic about the significant current problems (primarily based around inequality and poverty) yet optimistic about the future.

And there’s no question about the talent available here. On Saturday, Gabi and I, with mercurial South African educational technologist Maggie Verster, delivered a workshop on using OERs and social media for teaching and learning at Kliptown Secondary School in Soweto.

Maggie in full flow

The participants, both teachers and schoolchildren, were engaged, articulate and, especially in the case of the latter, more than capable of harnessing the new opportunities for social interaction and learning (accessed mainly through cell phones) offered by technology.

The Representative Council of Learners and workshop participants. Future Unisa graduates?

We’ve got a very hard week ahead, but I know we’re all looking forward to it.

Follow us and everyone else at the festival on Twitter: #unisa2011.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

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