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Unisa @ 150: Harnessing the power of 4IR for outstanding student support

Leveraging the 4th Industrial Revolution to address student support challenges and celebrate the success stories over the 150-year period of Unisa’s existence was the theme of the Department of Tuition Support and Facilitation of Learning’s (DTSFL’s) webinar as it kicked off its celebrations of the 150-year existence of this prestigious institution.

Click here to view a recording of the webinar. 

The programme director, Ziyanda Febana-Mkila, a student success practitioner in the DTSFL’s Student Retention Unit, opened the webinar and welcomed the audience in true African style with an isiXhosa greeting, "Ma Afrika amahle". She continued: "In Xhosa, we say ‘khululani ibhayi kusekhaya nalapha’, which can be loosely translated as ‘Take off your jackets, because this too is home’."

A journey second to none

Prof Meahabo D Magano, Acting Executive Director: DTSFL, set the scene for this prestigious event – probably a nostalgic moment for her as she herself is a Unisa alumna, who registered for her first degree in 1981.

In her presentation, Magano narrated the rich history of Unisa from being an examining body in 1873 to one that has fully embraced open distance and e-learning, and that is now, in 2023, more attuned to student needs than ever before in its illustrious history. The major milestone reflected on in Magano’s presentation is how Unisa is grounded in addressing the needs of the African continent – inclusive of all students and encompassing their wide spectrum of needs – all while being globally recognised as a university that is leading the way in shaping futures.

"Granted," she said, "the 150-year journey has not been without its fair share of challenges, but Unisa has surely weathered the storms successfully in ensuring that no student is left behind, as championed by the institution’s successive leaders."

After an insightful presentation by Magano, Febana-Mkila quoted Xhosa poet Yonela Meyi - "Kaloku NtozoBawo utywiwa kombona kuchubelana, thathani bafundi nanga amazwi obulumko" - meaning that knowledge is truly best when it is shared with others.

Development is key

In the spirit of sharing knowledge, the first presenter, Matshidiso Pooe, Acting Head: Centre for Professional Development (CPD), took the audience through her presentation titled A good share of the bigger cake: Our trajectory of professional development at Unisa.

Pooe’s presentation echoed one of Magano’s points on how Unisa’s staff members continue to develop themselves through academic qualifications and training; her presentation focused on the training conducted by the CPD at Unisa, highlighting the qualifications, training and support they offer. "CPD truly encompasses the African saying, ‘Umntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, translated as ‘I am because we are’ (also ‘I am because you are’)," she said, "as the centre develops staff members so that they are able to offer support that is grounded in expertise and innovation to students."

The power of language

Pooe was followed by Dr Mpho Monareng, Director:  Language Services who presented The Language Services: The heartbeat of human mind, critical comprehension, creativity, and revolution. As a point of departure, Monareng presented on how Language Services is at the centre of knowledge and sense making. His presentation also touched on the important role of the Directorate: Language Services at Unisa as the institution evolved over the years "moving away from the Stone Age to the soft age".

Reflecting on the challenges, milestones and successes, he said it was truly exceptional to see how Unisa has evolved from where it started, to the current Fourth Industrial Revolution. Monareng concluded his presentation, leaving the audience pondering on how to use language creatively since our very thought processes are exercised through the medium of language. According to Monareng, language is not the vehicle through which we think; language is thinking itself. He said that in his own experience, the languages he knows, came together to give him his picture of the world. He emphasised the significance of multilingualism, as the institution looks at advancing the African agenda so that the existing body of knowledge infuses the African knowledge system.

Prioritising of the digitalisation of African languages

The next presenter was Prof Koliswa Moropa, Head of the Language Unit, who presented on Digitalisation for the advancement of African languages at Unisa. Moropa’s presentation reflected on the history of the use of language in teaching and learning at Unisa, highlighting the milestones from 2006 when the university adopted a language policy, with the latest revision thereof in 2016.

Moropa’s presentation highlighted milestones such as the launch of the Academy of African Languages and Science, multilingual glossaries, and the exciting innovation of the incorporation of robotics in indigenous languages. "Speak robotics indigenously" is the slogan of this community engagement project. Recognised in Africa and internationally, it yet another brilliant example of how the institution is reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures, cementing Unisa’s prioritising of the digitalisation of African languages.

Dr Makwena Molotja, Head: Facilitation of Learning: Eastern Cape, presented on Regional academic support services to support the academic project. She showcased the services offered at the 26 offices across South Africa with the aim of bridging the geographical distance hurdle by ensuring that students can access the university closer to where they are. Molotja provided examples of how these offices are present at all stages of the "student walk" at Unisa; she also emphasised the digital support offered to students in the regions.

Lekau Rachidi, Manager: Student Retention Unit, gave an insightful presentation titled Things we forgot to remember: A reflection of 150 years of student support at Unisa. In his presentation,  Rachidi reflected on the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education, experiential learning and recognition of prior learning, among others.

Rachidi reflected on how the institution has managed to navigate itself through hoops and loops over the years from power courses as an initial effort to transform tutorial support in the institution. He also reflected on the university’s archives, recalling many of the institution’s efforts at supporting students, amongst which was the extended tutor system – he reminded the audience how students used to pay for tutorial support.

In his wrap-up, Rachidi encouraged staff members never to forget the important task of offering support services that are responsive and flexible enough to accommodate the different types of students and their needs. In his concluding remarks, he noted that in 2019 the Senate Teaching Learning and Community Engagement Committee approved a framework for academic development and that this framework still stands; he challenged support staff to adhere to the goals, and to reflect on how we have fared in our various support areas. He added that as we celebrate all the pockets of success achieved over the years and given all the challenges that we have had to overcome, we must never forget that the existing challenges that continue to plague us can be circumvented and that we are able to transcend these challenges on our upward trajectory towards reclaiming Africa's intellectual futures.

Utilising digital pedagogy

The next presentation was titled Technology-enhanced innovative research student support in an open, distance and eLearning environment, presented by Dr Thandazile Mhlongo, lecturer in the Department of Environmental Sciences. Mhlongo’s presentation offered some refreshing insight into how master's and doctoral students are supported on their academic journeys. Mhlongo demonstrated how students have been supported locally and internationally. Regarding virtual collaboration, Mhlongo indicated how the department had adopted digital pedagogy as part of student support where teaching and learning, including sharing of learning materials, are done through social media platforms and digital learning platforms.

Dr Phumza Makgato-Khunou, Head: Centre for Professional Development and Acting Director: Instructional Support and Services, presented on Student support through digital access centres. Makgato-Khunou opened the presentation with a contextually relevant video - developed by Nontado Magubesti - which showcased the geographical spread of the country and the socioeconomic realities of Unisa students.

Makgato-Khunou reflected on the history of the digital access centres (DACs). She highlighted how the developments were accelerated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. "Undoubtedly," she said, "DACs are enabling the university to reach rural and remote students, including those located in previously disadvantaged urban townships - touching lives beyond regional centres, and ensuring inclusivity for students with disabilities."

Asking pertinent questions about Unisa’s stake in the 4IR, Dr Selina Nkosi, a senior lecturer at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, presented on Revolutionising student support: How artificial intelligence is enhancing student success in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Nkosi’s presentation stimulated reflection and critical thinking in terms of how artificial intelligence could enhance student support or has been enhancing student support success in the fourth industrial revolution. She highlighted the advantages of 4IR, mentioning technologies - artificial intelligence power tools - and how they change the way students learn, how we teach, and how institutions operate in general. A powerful takeaway from Nkosi’s presentation is the reflective question of whether Unisa is a driver or a follower in the 4IR.

A very important inclusion on the panel of presenters was that of "student voice" Talent Nonjabulo Gumbi, an executive member of the Unisa National Student Representative Council at the University of South Africa. Gumbi shared her journey as a student at Unisa. She reflected on the benefits of being a student at Unisa, such as support services, free access to computer labs, and socialising with and learning from other students which all assisted her on her journey to success.

She also reflected on the admission process and how Unisa was the only institution able to make her dream come true. Gumbi did not spare any feelings as she reflected on the challenges students face at Unisa, including data costs, accessing lecturers and accessing study materials, to mention a few. Gumbi concluded by stating that should these challenges be addressed, students would have a seamless journey at the institution.

Ending the day’s celebration on a fitting note was Dr Gladys Kedibone Mokwena, a former student at Unisa who first registered in 1983. Mokwena reflected on her journey - with the university on the mountain - and how she has used this journey to motivate and inspire others through her published books. She closed her presentation with the powerful poem below:

Unibesithi ya Afrika Borwa, Mo-re-tsamaisa bosigo. Mangwana, motshwara thipa bogaleng.

Ka wena re fentse sera-segolo, Apartheid, morekgaogantshi.

Lefatshe ka bophara, you are the mega ODeL and African University shaping futures in humanity.

Mabonegela-ditšhaba, tsweletsa go kgantsha Lesedi, bokamoso.

Mogaetsho go tswa mo go wena, gore o atlarela tšhono e.

Keep going, each step may get harder, but don’t stop.

The view is beautiful at the top.

With this poem that had everyone in a celebratory mood, Febana-Mkila closed the event, and wished everyone all the best, with the message: Ndinimbathisa ngengubo yothando, nenvisiswano.


* Submitted by the Department: Tuition Support and Facilitation of Learning

Publish date: 2023/04/12

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