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

Unisa visitors

We’re privileged to be hosting a visit by five South African colleagues this week.

Paul, Peter, Jason, Mpine and Leoni from Unisa are taking part in a series of activities in the Media Zoo, including a ‘compressed’ Carpe Diem and a variety of presentations and workshops led by Beyond Distance colleagues.

Our South African colleagues are planning major changes in their e-learning provision, including developing capacity and exploiting the affordances of new learning technologies. They might even create their own version of the Media Zoo! 

We hope that they take maximim benefit from their visit to Leicester, which has given us the opportunity to learn from the experience of Unisa, one of the largest providers of higher education in the world.

Alejandro Armellini

5 October 2010

Edutainment – making it work

The idea of educating through entertainment is appealing, but it’s tricky to get the balance just right. As Terese has noted, Sesame Street got it right in the USA. The BBC got it right with The Archers in the UK. And it has worked in South Africa for Soul City – a multimedia health programme that I was privileged to work on in the nineties.

Soul City was the brainchild of a young doctor, Garth Japhet, who  had seen babies dying unnecessarily of dehydration, abused women who were too ashamed to tell the doctor the real reasons for their injuries, and patients who had contracted HIV through ignorance. Believing that if information could be put across in an emotionally engaging way, people would be moved to change their behaviour, Japhet and his colleagues set up Soul City as a non-governmental organisation. At the heart of their programme was a television soap opera, with each episode containing a well-crafted health message skillfully embedded within a highly dramatic script. The TV show is backed up by newspaper inserts in national newspapers as well as radio shows in nine languages, and pamphlets and posters distributed via clinics around the country.

Today Soul City has over 35 million viewers in eight countries, and the organisation has gathered an impressive body of evidence through ongoing evaluations to show that the programme has caused behaviour change on a significant scale. Its founder, Japhet, recently won the USA-based Everett M. Rogers Award for Achievement in Entertainment Education.

What is it that has made Soul City such a successful example of the edutainment genre? There are at least four factors, I think.

Firstly, the Soul City developers go to great lengths to understand honestly the needs and views of the audience – many of whom will recognise their own stories in the serial. So for example,  they dealt with the domestic violence story in a highly nuanced and sensitive way, showing Matlakala as a sophisticated professional woman (not the stereotype abused working-class woman), and showing how the drama is played out between both families, and not just the couple.

Secondly, Soul City uses a cross-disciplinary team to develop the content. I participated in workshops with social workers, medical doctors, police officers, counsellors and religious leaders, to develop the primary health messages. Educational people were in the minority at these workshops.

Thirdly, the Soul City television show has consistently used the best actors, directors and producers in the country. The show is worth watching in its own right, and the viewer engages with the “messages” primarily on an emotional level. (This is perhaps where the medium is at its most powerful.)

Finally, Soul City and their funders have a commitment to building in evaluation to every stage in every cycle of the programme. The evaluation carried out amongst Soul City’s viewers, listeners and readers is rigorous, and feedback obtained in this way is literally fed back into the programme to enhance further its impact.

So if anyone out there thinks education and entertainment don’t go together, I hope I have persuaded you otherwise!

Gabi Witthaus

An ELKS seminar: completion and retention issues in South African distance education

The ELKS Community, coordinated by the BDRA, ran a very successful seminar on the 24th of September from 10.15am – 11.45am British Summer Time. The event was broadcast from the BDRA’s Media Zoo at its new premises at 103 – 105 Princess Road East, Leicester. The speaker was Dr Paul Prinsloo, who is at the Directorate, Curriculum Development at the University of South Africa, one of the Mega Universities with 290,000 students studying at distance. Paul’s seminar was concerned with a social critical model of student retention in distance education in developing country context, a very relevant topic for distance educators all over the world.

I think you will find the seminar very interesting and relevant, so we have recorded the session together with live interactions from participants in the way of a chat box and live questions and answers.

Click on the link below to view and listen to the recording of the seminar. I suggest your skip the first 5 minutes so you want to avoid the bit where we struggled with the technology in the beginning!


A short introduction to Paul’s seminar follows for those who prefer to read before listening.

Title of the seminar: Understanding student through-put and retention in a higher education developing world context

A short introduction:

The University of South Africa (Unisa) has as its vision “Towards the African university in the service of humanity.” With its almost 300 000 students, Unisa is one of the mega-universities in the world and the largest in Africa. As the only dedicated comprehensive distance education provider in South Africa, Unisa faces unique opportunities and challenges with regard to contributing to realising the dreams and aspirations of a post-apartheid democracy in a developmental state, providing responsible open access to previously disadvantaged individuals and groups in redressing the injustices and inequities of the past and providing sustainable and appropriate student support optimising students’ chances of success.

Most of the current conceptual models on student throughput and retention are developed within the context of residential North Atlantic higher education settings. Although there are some research efforts and proposals specifically dedicated to understanding student retention and throughput in the context of distance education, there is very little research and conceptual exploration regarding the impact of the specific African context on understanding student throughput and retention in an open and distance learning environment.

This proposed social-critical model is the first such conceptual model in a distance education environment in a developing world context. We are of the opinion that the model and its implementation and refinement will considerably impact on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning at Unisa. As such the model is an important and innovative initiative to define, inform, encourage, increase and sustain retention, throughput and active student participation.

About Dr Paul Prinsloo:

Paul is an Education Consultant at the University of South Africa. His research interests include curriculum theory, student throughput, corporate citizenship, sustainability education, teaching about climate change and religious studies. Paul regularly reads papers at national and international conferences and has published in accredited and popular journals on a range of topics including the teaching of corporate citizenship, ethics in business education, curriculum design and factors impacting on the success of teaching and learning in distance education. Paul received an Open University International Fellowship in 2007, the Unisa Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research in 2008, and a Unisa International Fellowship in 2009.

Happy listening and viewing. I would like to hear your feedback on the seminar (please email me at pe27@le.ac.uk); we will take your suggestions to improve our future ELKS semainrs.

You can join ELKS Community (free!!) at http://elkscommunity.wetpaint.com/

Thank you.

Palitha Edirisingha
27 Sept 2009

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