The School of Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), at the University of KwaZulu-Natal has been awarded the IBM Faculty Award with a further boost of $12 000.00 for its successful NextEd Programme.
The NextEd Programme, developed by IS&T's Head of School Professor Manoj Maharaj, lecturers Craig Blewett and Rose Quilling, is a first for any South African University and uses web-based technology to facilitate the development of a worldwide virtual collaborative education network.
The programme uses Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook, Youtube, Blogs, podcasts and many others that students are familiar with to support teaching and learning. In addition, a virtual university was set up in a 3D world called Second Life, where the students are able to attend lectures, meet their team members, from around the world, and simply hang out.
The NextEd philosophy is to provide a collaborative environment where all participants collaborate on an equal footing, and contribute and benefit in a collaborative style. Further to this is the need to provide a haven where imperfect learners and educators, can create platforms where they can engage in an effective way.
One of the key objectives of the NextEd Programme is to embrace a social learning approach, where students learn by constructing their knowledge in groups.
The Virtual University also allows various institutions to share expertise and consequently to be able to provide students with the best possible learning experience.
ncreasingly, research is showing that the student demographic is changing from full-time school-leavers to professional, employed adults who are returning to universities to enhance their qualifications or indeed change their qualifications all together.
"Since these professional students cannot leave their workplace to study fulltime, it is necessary for us to bring the university to them," says Professor Maharaj.
"This allows our university to reach out to potential students throughout the world and increases access to education to individuals and communities in remote areas who would otherwise not be able to get to a university campus."
This year, the NextEd Programme is being extended to include Daystar University in Kenya, with many other universities and courses in the pipeline in the future.
Blewett says the ultimate goal is to facilitate a collaborative network for not only institutions but individuals to connect and grow and to empower participants to propagate their learning through to their networks, thus resulting in a viral growth in the learning.
"For years we have been looking for an approach with which to teach students that supports social construction of knowledge and now for the first time, we have a whole bunch of applications that not only support this form of learning, but which students choose to use each day."
Currently, two fourth year modules, Computer Mediated Communications and Special Topics in IS&T, have been used to test the implementation of these new approaches with very encouraging results.
Quilling adds: "The true power of these environments is the ability to collaborate with other universities around the world. We've already run shared courses with the University of Massachusetts which was a great opportunity for our students to work in virtual teams with other members from around the world.
"We are also challenging people on their understanding of how universities should work and the boundaries are falling away. Africa is no longer on the lower end of the scale. Our students are dynamic and have gained confidence in this virtual university. It gives them the space to explore this new environment and to showcase their knowledge. The NextEd Programme is in line with the University's vision and mission to be research driven and to focus on the needs of Africa as a community."