Diversity enriches learning

University teachers face more challenges in the lecture halls now, but they are better for them, writes Eddie Webster

I often meet students I have taught over the years who ask me nervously: “how are things at wits?” I am always cautiously upbeat. I realise, of course, that for some of us it was more comfortable to struggle for democracy than to have to live in one! But on balance, at the chalk face, I believe the quality of teaching has risen and we have not lowered our exit standards.

The vast bulk of my colleagues welcome the demographic transformation of our classrooms. It is the fulfilment of a struggle for a genuinely open university that goes back four decades. These new students have improved our ability to understand and appreciate “difference”. Instead of social homogeneity, we now face a classroom that is increasingly representative of the diversity of our country.

This has enriched teaching and learning. It is a decisive step towards teaching excellence in the faculty. To take advantage of this opportunity, we, as teachers, need to develop new skills: language, mentoring and a sensitivity to the knowledge and life experiences of a new constituency of students.

This demographic transformation presents us with a challenge. Many of these students speak English as a second or third language. They often come from desperately poor backgrounds and have been to schools where the teachers were unqualified, poorly motivated and badly resourced. This is the legacy of apartheid. I believe we have responded to this challenge in creative ways.

To begin with, we appointed academic development tutors to teach alongside mainstream tutors where “under-prepared” students were given a variety of academic skills to off-set their lack of preparation at high school level. We soon realised this response was inadequate and began introducing year-long foundation courses. We hope eventually to be able to offer a full foundation year so that students from “under-prepared” backgrounds will spend a year making up for lost ground in their high school education.

To date, we have been unable to afford a full foundation year. But it is gratifying to note that the Department of Education’s recent White Paper argues for strengthening academic development structures to promote quality teaching and learning.

Our decision to put major resources into these areas arose out of a two-fold realisation: firstly, “under-preparedness” is not a temporary phenomenon that will pass away in a year or two. This “myth of transience” was initially widely held in the faculty. Under-preparedness is not a short-term problem.

Secondly, an increasing number of under- prepared students were passing, but most in the third class. Foundation courses were designed to give them an opportunity to do well by taking an extra year over their degree, not simply pass it. We are now developing a new generation of postgraduate students assisted by, for example, the research internship system of the Centre of Scientific Development.

Unexpectedly, the challenge of teaching under-prepared students has raised the standard of pedagogy. When I started teaching at Wits 20 years ago, we seldom used overheads, activity-based learning and other interactive styles of teaching. Today, all my colleagues are aware of how to communicate better in the classroom.

In 1990 we created, along with other faculties, a Faculty Teaching and Learning Committee. Most departments have a teaching and learning sub-committee. What we initially thought was necessary for under- prepared students we now realise is simply good practice for all teachers.

There are no “quick-fix” solutions in education. We may only reap the harvest of this human resource investment in five to 10 years. Meanwhile, some prizes are not being awarded at our annual graduation ceremonies. This has always been the case and is not a sign of a “drop in standards”. On the contrary: it is a recognition of our commitment to maintaining standards. We do not award prizes to the best student in the class: we award prizes only when the best student achieves a first-class pass. It is a case of “levelling up” and not “levelling down”. We intend to maintain the same exit standard in 1997 as we did in 1977.

But, during the period of transformation, we have lost many good students to other faculties, other universities, and, indeed, to other countries. This is a regrettable but temporary phenomenon. In our concern with “redress”, we may have neglected the top 10% of students. This is part of our next challenge - to make our curriculum relevant to a multicultural South Africa.

There are limits to what we can do. There has been a global shift from elite to mass education. This puts a strain on academic teachers all over the world. We have more routine work, larger classes and less discretionary labour time to engage in research activities. In spite of this, most of my colleagues retain a steady output of accredited publications and some are leading scholars internationally.

I do not think it is helpful to label the small number who have resisted these changes as racist. Indeed I think the statement from the Department of Education (Mail & Guardian, April 18 to 24) is counter-productive as it stifles constructive debate. The allegation of racism is too serious to be used in a cavalier fashion.

My impression is the vast bulk of the faculty are recognising the need to “retool” their skills and adapt to the changing demography of the classroom.

I observe daily the transformation in the classroom of students previously excluded from a good university education. I consider it an honour to be part of this process. I do not believe we have achieved teaching excellence in the new circumstances, but I am confident that we are moving towards that goal.

Eddie Webster is professor of sociology and chair of the Teaching and Learning Committee at the University of the Witwatersrand

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