/ 16 February 2017

UCT VC: Let’s flip the varsity classroom and step into the digital future

This is the second failed attempt to oust Trollip this year. The first was a motion of no confidence that failed to materialise.
This is the second failed attempt to oust Trollip this year. The first was a motion of no confidence that failed to materialise.


In the national discussion over tuition fees, access and success rates of university students, and decolonisation, one aspect of modern education that deserves more attention is technology: how it is changing our world and how educational institutions can equip graduates to be competitive in this new digital world.

I recently attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, where the umbrella theme was the fourth industrial revolution – robotics, self-learning machines, nanotechnology, genome research and other innovations that were the themes of science fiction when I was a student. This is the world we must prepare new graduates to enter, and where we want them to be leaders if we are to ensure South Africa’s competitiveness.

The Global Universities Leaders Forum, which meets annually at the WEF, explored how different universities are doing this and how we can learn from each other, and collectively anticipate the needs of future graduates – and hence adapt our current practices. A key theme is the effect on employment and the risks of a global digital divide – and how we can ensure that students who do not have ready access to those technologies will not be left behind.

The department of higher education and training is funding the Personal Mobile Devices Project at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg, Sol Plaatje University and the University of the Free State, to support students who do not already have access to these devices. Johannesburg, Wits and Cape Town universities, for instance, have tested the use of entry-level tablets in specific learning programmes.

Blended learning is gaining widespread adoption in education. It combines traditional classroom methods with digital media. Students can access the materials available online to learn more effectively when they are away from their face-to-face activities such as lectures, tutorials and in laboratories.

Building a personal relationship with lecturers and classmates is valuable for exchanging ideas and raising questions. Often, large classes in particular can be more effectively delivered online where students can pause and recap sections, go at their own pace, and where the lecture can be constructed with quizzes along the way, so that one only moves on to a new section when the previous section has been understood.

At UCT we have “flipped the classroom” in first-year statistics, with the lectures delivered online and the workshops face to face. This has dramatically improved success rates.

To take full advantage of blended learning, a student needs appropriate technology. This became very clear last year, when physical access to UCT’s campus was disrupted by protesters. Faculties agreed to use blended learning strategies to complete the interrupted semester. We arranged with cellular service providers to allow free data access for students who needed to log into the university’s system and electronic resources. All four of the country’s cellular data providers made this important concession, allowing students to access electronic course materials at no charge.

Students also need the hardware to connect to the digital world. Every institution of higher learning offers computer labs. But, not surprisingly, as the dependency on digital resources increases – from journals and textbooks to videos of lectures, simulation laboratories and interactive chatrooms – we are finding that students need their own laptop computers to learn as they move about the campus, in breaks between classes, or working all night in their rooms to complete an assignment.

UCT recently completed a four-year pilot project in four areas to look at how teaching might change if course conveners could take for granted that all students would have laptops. The courses were in physics, chemical engineering, architecture and law and laptops were provided to students on financial aid.

The pilot demonstrated significant learning benefits aside from in-classroom changes to teaching methods.

These students were able to submit higher-quality assignments because their laptops allowed them to spend more time on the task and to obtain formative feedback quickly and easily. One student said: “I would interact with my tutors … like she or he could see what I was writing while I was writing and [I could] get feedback instantly.”

The laptop offered students greater choice about when, where and how to learn, and allowed easier connections with other students, tutors, lecturers and resources as and when needed. Students also reported that having the laptops increased their personal security by removing the need to travel to and from computer labs late at night.

Using the devices for writing and note taking was an important bonus, although some still preferred to take notes by hand. Others found it helpful to be able to annotate pre-downloaded lecture slides on their device.

Lecturers reported that having devices in the classroom, studio or laboratory increased opportunities for exploration, feedback and discussions. The effect on teaching enabled by universal laptop access has ranged from changes in classroom practice to curriculum changes across majors and programmes. As a result, the participating academics now believe it is not possible to return to a pre-laptop world for their courses.

Because of the success of this pilot project, this year UCT began funding laptops for all first-year undergraduate students who are on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. The laptops will put them on an equal footing with peers from higher-income households and will improve graduation rates.

Max Price is the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town