The Future of Learning in Higher Education

Embracing change is the key to success

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Professor Thengani Ngwenya, Director of the Durban University of Technology Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching

In the fast-faced world of today universities play an ever increasing role of importance. Online learning/courses are becoming more prominent and the custodians of our universities have embraced this concept of being able to reach more students. We sat down with Professor Thengani Ngwenya, Director of the Durban University of Technology Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching to find out more about the problems universities grapple with and how they are flourishing in a new age.

Could you please give us a bit of background on yourself with regards to your education and working history?

After matriculating from Mlokothwa High School in Nongoma in 1980 I enrolled at the University of Zululand, but could not complete my studies due to my involvement in student politics. In 1986 I enrolled at the University of Natal (Durban Campus) and was appointed as Junior Lecturer in the English Department in 1989. During the three decades of my involvement in higher education I have taught at various universities including Vista University (Soweto Campus), the University of Durban-Westville and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). I was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in 2003 by UKZN. Over the years, I have taught English Literary Studies and Education Leadership & Management both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. I was appointed to my current position at DUT in 2009.

As the Director of the DUT Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, what is your ultimate goal that you’d like to achieve?

As a leader of an Academic Development Centre my goal has always been to make a demonstrable contribution to student success by providing support to academic staff and students. Our ultimate goal as a Centre is to contribute to the nurturing of students who will be life-long learners and be able to adapt to the swiftly changing work and social environments in which they will be located after graduation. Our work covers curriculum design and development; staff professional development; student support and development as well as the development and implementation of academic policies.

Strategy is key to most things in life; could you tell us about your strategies for promoting the quality of teaching?

We have tried to capture the essence of our approaches for promoting quality learning in the DUT Learning and Teaching Strategy which resonates with the new strategic directions of the university, commonly known as the DUT Vision 2030. We have chosen to foreground problem-based learning because our goal is to produce graduates who are original and creative thinkers and who can use their knowledge and skills to solve real problems facing our country.

Along with the improvement of teaching quality one would imagine student success will follow—what are your other strategies with regards to the enhancement of student success?

We have designed very pragmatic strategies for promoting student success—these include academic advising, tutorials, mentoring and focussed support for first-year students who often struggle with adaptation to the university environment. The Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) also runs a very successful tutorial programme for all students in DUT residences.

At the core of our student support and development interventions is the philosophy of collaboration with all stakeholders who play different roles to promote student success. We therefore work very closely with the office of the Dean of Students, the Library, the Writing Centre and other professional support departments. The ultimate goal is to support and develop students holistically instead of approaching this delicate task in a fragmented or siloed manner.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has had an effect on every industry and sector, how much has 4IR changed the way teaching and learning takes place?

One feature of the 4IR that we are currently grappling with as universities is the ubiquity of information which is becoming increasingly available from many sources. The task of Teaching and Learning Centre like the one I lead is to ensure that students have sophisticated information-processing skills and techniques as this will make it possible for them to transform information into usable knowledge in a variety of contexts. This is in line with the notion of life-long learning which we seek to inculcate in our students.

What positive impact has 4IR made at your institution and do you believe there are any negatives attached?

The prominence of the 4IR in contemporary educational discourses has prompted us to review our curricular with a view to promoting soft skills which are needed to survive and thrive in a digitised world, characterised by high levels of uncertainty. As a university we are consciously moving away from the approach of training technicians to nurturing professionals who are adaptable and critical thinkers. The 4IR has made it imperative for universities to re-think the very notion of preparing students for the world of work. Instead of work-ready graduates we are preparing future-ready graduates. And the future is not as predictable as it used to be.

Talk us through the phrase ‘problem-based learning’ and explain how you tackle the subject at the Centre.

From a pedagogical perspective it can be argued that PBL (Problem Based Learning) is a productive way of approaching teaching at university because teaching sessions revolve around a problem which students need to solve as individuals and as a group. In the process they master concepts, facts and approaches which could be used to solve problems in different contexts of learning or professional practice.

As discussed with 4IR, digital is taking over. The world is changing at a speed seldom seen before which brings other aspects into play, such as online learning —what role do you believe online learning plays and how much will it still grow?

Online and blended learning are becoming more and more necessary for the success of our higher education system. By making courses available online universities will be able to reach students who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend face to face lectures. Online learning has the potential to become a major social justice initiative as it can be used for the professional development of teachers, health workers, technicians, etc.

Is online learning the future and will we see more tertiary institutions adopt online learning on a larger scale in the near future?

This is a clear possibility and a developmental imperative for our country in order to make higher education programmes accessible to more students who meet the requirements. The brief answer to your question is yes, online learning is the future.

What is the role of universities in promoting sustainable development goals?

Universities should be leading the global campaign to promote sustainability by ensuring that the principles and values underpinning environmental and other forms of sustainability are embedded in all their learning programmes. Development should not happen at the expense of the environment. Ideally, all institutional teaching and learning strategies should contain explicit techniques for merging the loaded concepts of sustainability and pedagogy. 

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