College of College of Graduate Studies

Rattling the innovative space in ODeL

Prof Moeketsi Letseka, incumbent of the UNESCO Chair of Open Distance Learning at Unisa and Editor in Chief of the scholarly journal, Africa Education Review, has a universal approach to growing open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) research by creating a pool of multidisciplinary ODeL experts.

Prof Sindile Ngubane-Mokiwa, Dr Mmabaledi Seeletso, Nomusa Sibaya, Prof Moeketsi Letseka, Prof Mpine Makoe, Dr Cecilia Olugbara and Tumelo Motaung

"We are encouraged by Prof Mandla Makhanya, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, who pushes for the Pan African Agenda," said Letseka. "South Africa is the second-richest country on the African continent and the wealthiest economy in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). It is an economic superpower, not only in Southern Africa but also in Africa, even when currently second to Nigeria."

He asks how it would be possible to translate this position of being a privileged country into supporting the country’s neighbours. "South Africa cannot succeed if we do not help our neighbours, like Zimbabwe, with their socioeconomic challenges. If we don’t deal with these issues or crises, we are failing the Pan African Agenda; we need to intervene and ask how we can help them to help themselves," Letseka said.

Engaging ODeL research

The UNESCO Chair on ODL under the College of Education entails a massive research project, including a research centre that drives research and capacity building on ODL/ODeL.

In 2019, the chair hosted ten research seminars and its inaugural international conference under the theme, Simulating open distance e-learning research, to get people thinking about ODL and ODL research. The seminars were a forum where scholars congregated to disseminate and showcase the research they were doing in the ODL environment. They were also a platform where experts could come and deliberate about issues that mattered to everybody in distance learning institutions, with a focus on ODL, its challenges and solutions.

In attendance were scholars from different disciplines across Unisa’s eight colleges and the Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL). External participants from the Human Sciences Research Council, the Department of Basic Education and Higher Education, the Department of Science and Technology, and the National Research Foundation also attended.

The 2020 theme is Open distance learning and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. "One of the mandates of the chair is to be a think tank and to be at the forefront of innovation, innovative research, innovative thinking and innovative contribution to the development of sustainable goals," affirmed Letseka.

Creating access to cheaper PhD courses

Prof Moeketsi Letseka, Incumbent: UNESCO Chair on ODL, Unisa

Letseka was in Oslo, Norway and Dubai, representing Unisa as the UNESCO Chair on ODL, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Africa. "A consortium of four Southern African institutions and four Norwegian institutions are trying to create cheaper access to PhD courses in Southern Africa by seeking funding/subsidy," he said. Unisa, the University of the Western Cape, the Open University of Zimbabwe and the Open University of Kenya teamed up with the Norwegian universities.

Together, these universities have submitted a grant application to the tune of one million euros from the European Union’s Erasmus Programme. In rand terms this translates to R20 million at current foreign exchange rates. The project rollout is planned for 2021. One of the standing resolutions is that at Unisa courses in research methodologies and assistance technology learning will form part of the doctoral programme.

Collaborative research partnerships on the cards

Letseka will be applying for a co-hosted chair in indigenous knowledge systems with an emphasis on ubuntu with the Instituto Padre António Vieira (IPAV), which is based in Lisbon, Portugal. IPAV is a successful non-governmental organisation that runs self-directed leadership training courses using ubuntu.

"In South Africa, we have been talking about ubuntu. The Portuguese are using ubuntu principles to generate tangible results, to train people, and to create services for humanity," said Letseka. The plan is to use the model with his theories and collaborate with other institutions to establish TED talks. Furthermore, the plan is to create practical courses that will engage communities on how to think about what they can achieve within themselves by practising ubuntu.

On 27 January 2020, Letseka, together with a postdoctoral fellow under the UNESCO Chair on ODL, Dr Mmabaledi Seeletso from Botswana Open University (BOU), forged a bilateral collaborative research partnership with BOU. The partnership initiates collaboration on postgraduate student co-supervision and development of a PhD programme for BOU. "We are trying to determine if we can assist BOU through Unisa’s College of Education to develop a PhD programme," said Letseka. He hopes to have a memorandum of understanding in place that sets out the parameters of collaboration and further research engagements.

UNESCO Chair on ODL at Unisa team: Dr Mmabaledi Seeletso (Postdoctoral Fellow), Nomusa Sibaya (Administrator), Prof Moeketsi Letseka (Incumbent: UNESCO Chair on ODL, Unisa), Tumelo Motaung (Secretary) and Dr Temilola Olugbara (Postdoctoral Fellow)

Capacity building and sustainability

In 2019, postdoctoral fellows under the UNESCO Chair on ODL, Dr Mmabaledi Seeletso, and Dr Cecilia Olugbara, each produced six to seven papers that were presented at four conferences.

Two of these were national conferences, namely the UNESCO Chair annual research conference, hosted in Irene, South Africa, and the College of Education’s Teacher Education at a Distance conference, held at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The other two were international conferences, namely a jointly hosted conference by the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) and the Open University, United Kingdom (OU UK) held in Edinburg, Scotland, and the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) Conference on World Online Learning, which took place in Dublin, Ireland.

The Open Distance Learning Postdoctoral Fellowship Support Programme is now open to 10 doctoral graduates with an interest in ODL and e-learning. As part of the programme, the postdoctoral fellows will conduct and publish ODL research as well as support ODL research excellence at Unisa.

Letseka, together with Prof Mpine Makoe, incumbent of the Commonwealth of Learning Chair: Open Education Practices/Resources (OER/OEP), and Prof Sindile Ngubane-Mokiwa, Head of the Institute for Open and Distance Learning, have set up a doctoral consortium. They are recruiting students at master’s and doctoral levels to specifically study ODeL in order to enhance the ODeL capacity at Unisa.

"There are accountants in the College of Accounting Sciences, economists in the College of Economic and Management Sciences, lawyers in the College of Law, scientists in the College of Science Engineering and Technology and agriculturists in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Studies, all working in an ODeL institution. However, there is just a small group of experts in ODeL," said Letseka. The doctoral consortium aims to create a cohort of specialists in ODeL that will boost and advance the whole agenda of Unisa being a leading ODeL institution.

"A creatively productive full professor must create more; you can’t create more if you can’t source funding, you can’t build teams and you can’t innovate. We need to rattle the innovative space, my job as the chair is to do exactly that," said Letseka with a smile.

* By Mpho Moloele, PR and Communications Assistant, Department of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation

Publish date: 2020/07/23