Improved internet connectivity can improve teaching when academics use it to the full

10-05-19 USAf 0 comment

At almost 2m in height, he towers above everyone around him. Students call him rare among their lecturers – or at least those in the School of Education. His approach to teaching, testimony to 30 years of moulding different cohorts of aspirant teachers, also paradoxically negates his 63 years of age (i.e. it trumps belief that a 63-year-old could be that technologically astute). His name is (Mr) Hopi Mboweni, lecturer and developer of the Bachelor of Education in Foundation Phase Teaching degree at the University of Limpopo’s School of Education. He seems resolute on optimising technology to bring out of students, the best teachers that the University of Limpopo (UL) could produce.

Mboweni swears by Blackboard Learn, a computerised Learning Management System (LMS) to which UL has subscribed, which has become his basic work tool – and companion. Blackboard (for short) can help academics to shift their courses and programmes into blended modes of teaching by, for example, making study materials electronically accessible to students wherever they are, thus enriching teaching and learning. Blackboard is just one example of many LMSs in the market. “Actually, if I could have it my way, I would not be attending classes. As long as we have stable internet connectivity, and this tool to connect me to the students, students do not really need me in the classroom,” he states. “My teaching notes are on Blackboard; anything that I do in class is on Blackboard, including tests, content related video clips and selected newspaper articles. With this App, I’m able to give students regular updates and keep them engaged with the module that I teach. It is a very practical tool; a time saver that eliminates a lot of paperwork.”

Mboweni’s typical class scene with his 683 Inclusive Education (3rd year)students. Inclusive Education is about embracing the diversity of learners,especially those with special needs such as those with disabilities. It champions allowing learners with disabilities to study in general education situations as opposed to being relegated to “special needs” schooling. Proponents of inclusive education believe that children integrate better in society and also improve their social interactions when they experience learning in general teaching environments  [1].

“As long as we have stable internet connectivity, students do not need me in person, in the classroom,” Mboweni states emphatically.

 

Reliable connectivity, thanks to USAf, TENET and DHET

LMSs could only function with reliable internet connectivity at UL – a direct outcome of the Rural Campuses Connection Project (RCCP) by Universities South Africa (USAf). The RCCP came about when the then Higher Education South Africa (HESA), USAf’s predecessor, approached the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for funding support as far back as 2008, with the aim to enhance broadband connectivity to priority rural campuses that had not been connected to the South African National Research (SANReN) backbone. Through improved information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and enhanced internet connectivity, USAf enables rural campuses to improve teaching and learning as well as research. The RCCP project is being funded by the DHET and implemented by the Tertiary Education and Research Network of SA (TENET).

UL’s main campus was one of the 22 sites connected first (during RCCP I) between 2010 and 2014. RCCP II, which commenced in March 2015 and is now winding down, has added 102 additional sites to the SANReN backbone. According to Mr Simon Ndou, Manager, Campus Network, prior to 2012, UL had a bandwidth speed of only 30 megabits per second (Mbps) at its disposal. Post-2012 the connection was increased to 150 Mbps, a five-fold improvement in network speed capacity. The infrastructure linking UL to the city of Polokwane currently has a capacity of 10 gigabits (Gbps).

 

Benefits of increased bandwidth

Although Ndou argues that UL will never have enough internet, referring to unlimited user needs and limited institutional resources, he does concede that the gains made from this SANReN line are visible. And countless too, if one goes by the myriad benefits listed by Mr Gideon Ledwaba, Deputy Director: Service Desk (User Support) in the ICT Department. Ledwaba says previously, the institution had no choice but to limit internet usage in order to distribute the resource all around.

Due to the restrictions imposed in the past to manage the then available bandwidth, staff could not download videos useful in teaching. “After 2012, we managed to increase individual internet quotas from 0 to 10 gigabytes download per person per day. This limitation continued to be problematic because individuals invariably exhausted their quotas long before the day was over. Though users could request to have their quotas increased as per daily need, which required me to sit at my desk administering the increases – a very time-consuming process. In 2017, after fixing firewalls, we increased the quotas to 16 GB per person per day. Since then, users no more exhaust their daily quotas and life is much easier for both students and staff as well as us, ICT managers.”

Thanks to this increased internet facility, Mboweni prepares all his teaching slides and uploads them on the LMS for his students to access online. Whether he is in Mankweng (the location of UL, about 30km outside Polokwane) or off-campus and far away, students access his uploads on the LMS and can go on with the tasks assigned to them. “That way, I am able to achieve more with students,” says the veteran educator, who teaches the 3rd year Inclusive Education module to a 697-strong class and 3rd year Educational Psychology to 633 students. He also teaches 1st (106) and 2nd (66) year students Teaching Practice in the Foundation Phase. All students registered to study at UL have access to Blackboard. “They know, by now, that they must every day go to the LMS to check for announcements.”


“I don’t put notices on hard physical boards. I do it on the Blackboard Learn platform,” says Mboweni, demonstrating how Blackboard works. “As you can see here, my Notice No.1 is: Announcement – test dates; give them the test scope and state that the date for Test 2 will be discussed in class. Look at the Learning Hub. It shows my welcome note, the module outline, my philosophy of teaching, and here I have indicated which students are due for Teaching Practice.”
 

Stimulating independent learning in students

Mboweni says Wifi connectivity on campus goes a long way in enabling students’ access to cyberspace. “Most of the time you will find students hovering around the Education Building to surf the net.” With that kind of infrastructure, he says there is no excuse to spoon-feed students. “They must go to the internet and download information. And they are doing exactly that,” he adds.

A first-year Masters in Education student, who credits Mboweni for her decision to enrol in post-graduate study at UL, fully agrees. Ms Keneilwe Moabelo, who completed her BA at another university majoring in Education and Psychology in 2010, was exposed to Mboweni’s teaching approach while doing her Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in 2017. “My plan, when enrolling at UL, was only to grasp the Teaching Method and proceed to teaching. I am still here today, because this man opened my eyes to how little I knew.

“Coming from another university I found his teaching quite different from what I was accustomed to. When he introduced new concepts he assigned us right away to research them from the internet and threw questions at us, via Blackboard, to answer and discuss in class. By class time he would be summarising and getting us to analyse our readings, comparing one scholar’s perspective to another’s. Because of that approach I began to appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and to understand Sigmund Freud differently. Mr Mboweni changed my whole perspective on Educational Psychology. I have since developed a passion for the discipline.

“When he posted videos on Blackboard,,

it was only for a certain period.

If you did not download within that time he removed the material.”

“Coming to assessments, Mr Mboweni always prided himself for never duplicating the questions between students. We had a class of 200 and everyone’s questions were different from the next person’s. So peeping over your neighbour’s shoulder in the computer lab to see how they were tackling a particular question was bound to be futile.”

Mboweni also used the LMS to get students’ feedback after class. “He would invite us to comment on what was said in class that day, and he would read all our comments. He also monitored internet usage. At the end of that semester, he produced internet usage reports on every single one of us, showing what percentage of time spent was on academic sources, what percentage was spent on navigating Blackboard Learn and what percentage was used to comment on readings.

“Thanks to Mr Mboweni, I have become a lot more analytical than I could ever have been,” Moabelo continues. “In visiting academic websites, I am now curious to even compare research reports published in different countries.


“Notwithstanding that I was coming from a research-intensive university, I noticed that Mr Mboweni is not your old textbook teacher,” says Ms Keneilwe Moabelo. “He is very technological. He revolutionised my thinking.”

“By the time I finished my PGCE, I was well aware that information is always advancing – and that I must not limit my teaching to what is offered in the textbook. I must always go beyond and above it. This I have applied to the learners that I met in teaching practice and those whom I taught before giving up chalk again to pursue post-graduate study. In the brief time that I got to teach Grade 4-7 learners between June 2018 and early February 2019, I was able to identify what works and what does not in the CAPS curriculum. I have no doubt that by the time I exit teaching school, I will be a much better teacher than I would have been if I had gone into practice straight after my undergraduate degree.”

USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group focuses on how technology (such as LMSs and enhanced connectivity) can be used to improve the quality of learning and teaching. These lecturer and student testimonies above suggest there is strong potential to realise that goal.

 

Blackboard not used to the full in the School of Education

Mboweni’s approach is regrettably not indicative of widespread practice – at least not in the School of Education – if the account of another B.Ed student, now into her fourth year of study, is anything to go by. Ms Naledi Kgatla was well into her 3rd year of teacher education studies when she woke up to the importance of the LMS in use at the institution. “Of the seven lecturers that I might have been exposed to in the whole of 2018, I remember only one, apart from Mr Mboweni, sharing her course outline electronically. Otherwise, regarding day-to-day communication she announced things verbally in class while Mr Mboweni relied fully on Blackboard. Whereas the majority of our lecturers typically summarised new concepts for us in class, Mr Mboweni’s style was different in that he introduced new material to us through questions. Via Blackboard he pointed us to educational sites on the internet to search for answers for ourselves. Furthermore, while many lecturers administered tests manually, Mr Mboweni did everything via Blackboard. We answered most of his tests online.”

Moabelo, the Masters student, also recalls that in her PGCE year in 2017, Mboweni stood out on the extensive use of the LMS among the total of seven lecturers to whom she was exposed. The rest relied on printed handouts in addition to textbooks. Even for the Computer Literacy module, Moabelo remembers being required only once to submit an assignment via Blackboard.

“Blackboard did show all the modules for which I was registered.

However, not once did the other lecturers ever post messages,

or material, on the system.”

These students’ perception of the School of Education lecturers differs starkly from the picture drawn from UL-wide, research-based evidence. According to a report issued by ICT Department’s eLearning division, in a survey carried out in 2018 about the use of technology in teaching, to which 101 responses were received, 79 academics stated that they were using Blackboard. [2] UL has 2 000 academics in total, which means the response size was small.  The bar graphs below provide more detail about the responses to the question, “Are you using Blackboard?”

Graph 1: Respondents using Blackboard

NB: A few academics gave more than one answer to why they were using Blackboard. That explains why the sum total of 62, 19 and 13 exceeds 79.

Graph 2: Respondents not using Blackboard

Reasons given by academics for not using Blackboard in 2018 included not being trained to use the software; Blackboard being too difficult; malfunctioning in one’s personal computer, or being freshly-employed and having yet to find one’s feet.

Prof. Jesika Singh, DVC: Research, Innovation and Partnerships gives another perspective. She admits that even though the institution encourages academics to use the internet and the LMS to enhance their teaching, and even though the ICT Department has provided the requisite training to achieve that end, “uptake can be limited by people’s fear of technology. The older teaching staff feel challenged by it and therefore cling to the old culture of chalk and board.”


Professor Jesika Singh, DVC: Research, Innovation and Partnerships believes that technological uptake can be limited by people’s fear of technology. “The older teaching staff feel challenged by it and therefore cling to the old culture of chalk and board.”

Definitely not Mboweni, whose penchant for all things technological surfaced as far back as his first-degree days in Scotland, where he got attached to the golf-ball typewriter that he used for his assignments in 1986. He says he was one of the first people to get internet at UL in 2007. “After seeing my father’s study walls almost disintegrate from carrying the weight of his collection of old encyclopaedia all these years, I learned to appreciate online resources. I therefore took keen interest in the internet, and collected a lot of gadgets.

“Yes I received training on Web CT, the App that was in use before we migrated to Blackboard. However, 95% of what I know was self-taught. Blackboard requires you to play around on it to discover additional functions, and also to not forget what you already know. Notwithstanding the amount of time I invest in the LMS, students are always ahead of me… I incentivise my students to use ICTs by adding 3% to their marks. I always tell them I admire students who add ICTs to their breakfast. But yes, I do agree that I am technologically inclined because in my spare time I build and fix machinery, including cars.”

 

Blackboard the most important communication tool – undergraduate student

From a student perspective, Kgatla feels very strongly that self-directed learning via the internet would be much higher in UL students, if the lecturers took the LMS more seriously than they do currently. “Some students are in their 3rd year but do not know the first thing about Blackboard – yet it is made available to all of us upon registration. This is a medium through which lecturers could be telling us what to expect in their upcoming classes, and to also report through if one was not going to make it to class that day. We often only found out at class that the teacher was not coming through that day. Why don’t  they post on Blackboard, we would ask.

“You would find a lecturer telling a class representative

to alert other students to a new development via Whats App.

But it was impossible for a class rep to reach everyone.

This is where Blackboard would have come in.

The App can also be used to administer baseline and

other assessments, and to achieve a lot more.”

Students’ interest in Blackboard is confirmed by the ICT Department’s e-Learning report about how many students (out of a population of close to 20 000) were active Blackboard users. [3] Active users meant a student had accessed the system at least once in the last 30 days before the survey. The report showed:

  • In 2016 there were 16 337 active users
  • In 2017 there were 17 127 active users

In a 2018 survey about internet accessibility and Blackboard, 1 727 students responded:

  • 45,4% found the internet accessible
  • 49,8% found the internet very accessible
  • 23,9% found Blackboard useful
  • 72,6% found Blackboard very useful

Most interestingly, a 2010 inquiry sought to test students’ opinions on self-directed learning. Of the 218 students who disclosed where they had obtained computer training:

  • 62 (28,4%) were self-taught
  • 10 (4,6%) had learned from family members
  • 36 (16,5%) had learned from friends

This meant that half of the students had learned how to use a computer outside of formal training.

Contrast students’ attitude towards technology as shared above to lecturer initiative as perceived by the interviewed students. Based on what she calls poor uptake of the LMS in the teaching fraternity, Kgatla is of the opinion that the investment being made to keep the LMS alive is wasteful. She maintains that lecturers must drive the use of the technology for students to embrace it. This, she learnt from experience. “When Mr Mboweni posted questions to us on Blackboard, we could not answer them on any other medium. So we were forced to work on the platform. I even set a daily alarm reminder on my phone to check Blackboard for new uploads. Forgetting meant risking missing out on information that I knew would assist me through the module.”

She admits that by getting students to research for themselves, Mboweni was putting added pressure on them. “However, he also unlocked in us, self-directed learning, and we covered a lot more ground. Ultimately we gained a lot more in course content and we’ve become much better future teachers for it.”

 

Increasing efficiencies in the administration of tests

Without the option of this software, Mboweni says he would have been losing countless hours to mundane administration. Preparatory (logistics) work ahead of administering a test would have entailed, for instance, “taking to the Head of the Department the Test Answer Books and Question Papers Request Form for approval. Thereafter I would have to submit the form and question paper to the Examination Office for printing. If my question paper is 21 pages (Multiple Choice Questions), it must be submitted for duplication printing three days prior to the test date. Now, multiply the 21 pages by 700 students. Thereafter I must carry it to the test venues. With Blackboard around I’m doing everything online. It takes a click of a button to correct an error in the material. Furthermore, after writing my tests online, the students get their marks instantly.”

 

Video-conferencing facilities should help create more efficiencies

Although he still does go to class daily and interacts with students face to face, it is only a matter of time before Mboweni gets his way. When a video-conferencing facility in the School of Education comes into operation from May, 2019, he and fellow lecturers will be able to monitor students at teaching practice from the comfort of the Video Conferencing Centre, thanks to an MTN-sponsored initiative to create a virtual environment in his school. This will not only eliminate travelling time to the various venues of teaching practice; it will also save travelling costs and free up lecturer time to do a lot more for their students.

“That facility will enable teaching via webinars, etc. Once that environment is up and running,

I’ll be able to capture my lessons there and stream them to students,” Mboweni explains.

“Whatever material we need, we can find on You Tube. And most of it is excellent.We just need to direct the students to appropriate sites, that’s all.”

It turns out that the video-conferencing innovation was Mboweni’s brainchild, submitted in a proposal in 2018 to the MTN Foundation (South Africa) through the support of the Executive Director of Marketing and Communication – Mr DK Mohuba who saw strategic value in the idea.

“Completion of this project will bring about greater efficiencies in teaching at the School of Education,” says Ledwaba, Deputy Director: ICT Service Desk (User Support). As at 25 April, network points had been created and cameras had been installed in the relevant buildings. The technology had been satisfactorily tested and all that remained was for a final handover from MTN Foundation.

Video-conferencing facilities at UL are not limited to the School of Education. The schools of Accounting, Agriculture, Geology, the International Office as well as the Medical School also have their own dedicated facilities. However, none of these use the facilities to collaborate with other institutions to enhance teaching. At least not yet. Professor Sam Risenga, Head of the Medical School, says video-conferencing was previously used to facilitate faculty engagement with counterparts at the former MEDUNSA, now renamed Sefako Makgatho University of Health Sciences. The young UL Medical School, now in its 4th year of operation, will in the second half of 2019 to early 2020, be deploying the first cohort of medical students to outlying areas for medical practice. “We will consider using the video-conferencing facility for purposes of linking with the students to be posted at Lethaba Hospital near Tzaneen; Mokopane Hospital in Mokopane and Tshilidzini Hospital near Thohoyandou. We might also deploy decentralised teaching to these centres then, even though we still have to work out the modalities of that.” Reasonable internet connectivity is required for effective video conferencing so it will be important to connect these sites to the SANReN.

 

Better internet access, improved networking, enriched teaching

In addition to the benefits already discussed, stable internet connectivity enables Mboweni to use Skype to connect to ICT and other colleagues on the main and other campuses. “Instead of walking to the next building I just connect to them via Skype and we get a lot going.”

He says in 2017, his institution nominated him to the Teaching Advancement at Universities (TAU [4]) Fellowship programme, through which he networks with five other fellows from participating public universities. The Fellowship is of two years’ duration. He links with this team, all Capetonians, via Skype.

He says his mentor, a University of the Western Cape’s Professor of Social Work and Director of Teaching and Learning, has to date shared more than 50 useful resources “which I would otherwise have probably never have known about. Without a reliable internet, these benefits would have been impossible.” He says even though he is in this fellowship with a multi-disciplinary team comprising lecturers in Anthropology, Business Administration and other fields, “there’s quite a lot that I’m learning from them, including new teaching methodologies.”

In turn, he also regularly assigns his students to do their own research on the internet and, in the process, “they also pick up new teaching methods themselves and go on to share new links to You Tube videos, among all of us.

“I can state very firmly that internet access has enriched my teaching and made things much easier for me. Functioning internet also allows a student to look up a new word on the net while I teach, and verify things in real time. Even though some of my colleagues insist that we cannot replace teachers, my personal standpoint is that we must “eliminate the teacher and allow learning to begin.”

 

“There are three things I took out of Mr Mboweni’s Inclusive Education class,” Naledi Kgatla says.

The first is that previously I did not accept people with disabilities. I was even afraid of them. But Mr Mboweni made me understand that people with disabilities are as human as I; that they have feelings and emotions like I do and also that, like me, they also have rights. Whereas I previously had no interest in disability, I am now aware of the need to teach able-bodied children to embrace and not discriminate against those with impairments. Ultimately, people with disabilities are the same as us. They just happen to have special needs.

Secondly, even though I had never really cared about the internet previously, his approach taught me that a teacher must be a life-long learner. The internet exposes us to new information all the time. I even bought a router last December to enable me all-time access even from my residence, where Wifi is weak. It is very important for me to be able to carry out research anytime and wherever I may be.

Thirdly, although the impression I had been given of Mr Mboweni, before he taught me, was of a bothersome lecturer, that changed on my very first day in his class. He asked us questions, and, as we answered them, he compiled a list of our names. By the end of that session he had identified in us, a Principal, a Vice Principal and a Head of Department (HoD) for our two classes. I became the HoD for my class. This came with a lot of work but I enjoyed my HoD responsibility immensely. I had to report on class attendance; absenteeism; participation in class; note certain behaviours in class and report about them.

Mr Mboweni unlocked in us, self-directed learning, and we covered a lot more ground,” Kgatla further says of Mboweni’s teaching approach. “Ultimately we gained a lot more in course content and we’re much better future teachers for it..”

 

What did I learn?

Mr Mboweni had turned his first class into an interesting session from which we also learned, for a full semester, important administrative functions of a teacher. In this Inclusive Teaching module I often got tasked to read a chapter and summarise it in class for other students. This experience boosted my self-confidence. Any little fear I could have had of public speaking is completely dissipated by now. As a group leader I was often tasked to control a discussion and prod those reluctant to participate until they did. From that exposure, I have learned to stand up for myself. I can proudly say I now can hold my own in front of any group, big or small.


[1] Wikipaedia. 2019. Inclusion (education). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inclusion_(education)

[2] University of Limpopo. 2018. Reflections on e-Learning. University of Limpopo Strategy Workshop, October 2018 (p.10).

[3] University of Limpopo. 2018. Reflections on e-Learning. University of Limpopo Strategy Workshop, October 2018 (pp.6-8).

[4] The TAU programme aims to:

  1. to contribute towards the enhancement of teaching and learning in higher education in South Africa by supporting the development of a cadre of academics across institutions and disciplines as scholars, leaders, change agents and mentors in their fields;
  2. to enhance the status and stature of teaching and popularise the understanding of teaching excellence in varied institutional and disciplinary settings.


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