Botho TE Talks Underscore the Teaching and Resources Balance and the Virtue of Service Learning

On the 25th of April Botho University's Teaching Excellence Department hosted an enlightening symposium featuring lectures delivered by two higher education specialists from South African universities. Botho Teaching Excellence (TE) Talks is a creative platform for interactive dialogue among academics on issues that bear on the quality of teaching and learning.

The first was delivered by Professor Anton Basson, Vice-Dean in charge of Teaching and Quality Assurance in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University, under the title "Four overall criteria for quality teaching – an international accreditation perspective." The central message of his presentation was that teaching is about getting the balance between learning and resources right. There is a symbiotic relationship between the time and money an institution commits to teaching and the quality of learning achieved by students.

Basson shared his experiences as an engineering academic in South Africa, explaining how the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) accredits engineering programmes in the country by carrying out regular accreditation visits to ensure that the processes of an institution's engineering school are meeting the ECSA standards. "These accreditation visits are very demanding because they involve mounds of paperwork but the ironic thing is that the greatest benefit comes from the preparation for the visit," Basson enthused, "because it forces you to scrutinise your processes and encourages a continuous improvement mindset."

Basson also highlighted that an institution should reward good teaching that results in good learning while discouraging good teaching that leads to bad learning. The difference between the two has a lot to do with the level of expectation lecturers have of their students. Good teaching can lead to bad learning if a lecturer is too eager to help their students to the point that it becomes spoon feeding rather than guidance. Good learning can only be achieved if the teaching encourages students to become active participants in their learning, rather than just passive recipients of instruction.

During the question and answer session a Botho University lecturer in the audience pointed out that the assessments that students give on their lecturers at the end of a course put lecturers in a tough position because students quite often praise the lecturers who spoon feed them while condemning the lecturers who demand more of them. Basson acknowledged that this is a reality which all lecturers face and insisted that all institutions need to be more aware of the fact that student assessments can have the unintended consequence of making lecturers afraid to demand high performance from their students.

The second lecture was delivered by Professor Sunitha C. Srinivas, an Associate Professor at Rhodes University, under the title "Service learning: synergy of teaching and learning, research and community engagement." The central message of her presentation was that the best way for students to learn is to put them in an environment in which they are forced to apply all the concepts they have been taught in the classroom. "The only time growth occurs is when you're in a space in which you're uncomfortable," insists Srinivas.

Srinivas shared her personal story of how at the age of 27 she already occupied an important position in the World Health Organisation (WHO), so her rise on the 'golden ladder' was promising, but she decided to quit the organisation and go into teaching because she realised that "you don't train soldiers for a war on the battlefield; you train them somewhere else." She now lecturers Environmental Management and places a great emphasis on the concept of service learning, which she describes as an excellent tool that steers one away from the traditional 'disease-drug-dispense' model in pharmacy education. Srinivas laments that the traditional model in pharmacy education encourages practitioners to first wait for people to get sick and then recommend medication to cure the sickness while she believes the best approach is to emphasise prevention of disease by engaging with the community to encourage good personal healthcare practices.

It is in this spirit that every year Srinivas takes her students to Grahamstown Sci-Fest where these students teach the attending children and adults about personal health practices. She chooses the topics her students will focus on, not by looking in a text book, but rather by asking the local health NGOs: what are the important topics they would like more people to be aware of? This way the information her students give out is relevant to the current needs of society. For instance, in 2014 the topics she collected from NGOs were Plastic and Litter, Water Conservation and Safe Disposal of Medicines. The students spend a week interacting with members of communities with limited access to healthcare and the experience is always transformative for them.

Srinivas knows this for a fact because after the Sci-Fest she invites the Centre for Higher Education Research Teaching and Learning to analyse the benefits of this service-learning project through a feedback diagnostic administered on the students. Srinivas highlights that it is important that this feedback diagnostic be conducted by an independent third party because if she was to ask students what they learned they would simply tell her what they thought she wanted to hear. The results of this feedback consistently reveal that the benefits students feel they gained from participating in Sci-Fest include skills such as: working in a team; organising and managing oneself; communicating effectively; as well as reflecting on and exploring effective learning strategies. However, the most crucial lesson is that they began to understand the importance of community engagement in the promotion of proper healthcare practices.

Srinivas went on to say that this initiative doesn't end when students finish her course because she encourages volunteers from the Rhodes University Pharmacy Students Association (RUPSA) to work with a local Youth Development NGO called Upstart to collaborate on continuing to sensitise communities on good healthcare practices.

Her presentation made it quite easy to understand why in November last year Srinivas received the 2014 National Teaching Excellence Award jointly organised by the Council