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Social Infrastructures course wins UCT Collaborative Education Practice award

18 Nov 2016 - 15:15
Students visit Philippi Horticultural Area

Image: Students visit the Philippi Horticultural Area in Cape Town with convenor of the area Nazeer Sonday. Image credit: Global Citizenship Programme

“It was a life changing experience that got me to think behind every structure, there are people involved.” This was the sentiment of one student on the ‘Social Infrastructures: Engaging with Community for Change (SI)’ course; the recipient of the 2016 UCT Collaborative Education Practice Award that recognises excellent collaborative approaches to enhance the teaching and learning environment at UCT.

The course was developed as a partnership between colleagues in CHED, EBE, Science, and Commerce and has some of its roots in UCT’s Global Citizenship programme. Located in EBE, it is open to students across all faculties, although most students have come from the EBE faculty.

At the beginning of the course students are introduced to some of the key concepts and processes of learning and engagement that might assist in understanding how to think about community engagement with off campus constituencies. These include community, paradigms of engagement, development, and the process of community engagement itself. The second part of the course is designed around a series of key challenges facing cities and communities, issues important for all graduates to think about. It is less about in-depth theoretical or content knowledge linked to the issues but rather, how the particular issue is reflected in social infrastructures. Issues include water and sanitation, urbanisation, urban food security, and climate change as well as disability and social justice. 

According to course convenor Dr Janice McMillan, “this course emphatically says we want you to act not just learn. Very often in university degree qualifications no-one asks you how you’re going to use your qualification; can you show that you’ve learned about it? What we don’t do enough of is taking the learning into action”.  

As part of the assessment process students are required to submit a final critical reflective essay based on the course work, readings, and community engagement. This encourages students to think about how they will act upon what they have learned after graduation. 

In an excerpt from one student's’ essay it is clear that the SI course is impacting students' perceptions of the world in a positive way, “I have been able to see that a part of the beauty of our humanity lies in its complexity. This complexity needs not only appreciation from artists but also from all who consider themselves citizens of the world. This course has allowed me to identify myself as a global citizen who is able to exert influence in the technical and social arenas. I have learned to examine and analyze the perspectives and experiences of other people and myself. I find this to be beneficial in my ability to empathize and collaborate effectively with people from a vast array of  socio-economic backgrounds. I have been able to cultivate and nurture emotional intelligence and empathy towards the diverse groups of people found in every corner of the globe.”

McMillan speaks with passion when talking about the impact of this course and its context within the university as a whole, “If something touches you, it’s hard to forget it but we don’t often talk about the affective domain of learning at universities. Students often leave their hearts at the door, and bring in their thoughts and ideas disconnected from how they feel. I believe that if we want to help build a democracy and change people’s lives we need to help the students connect to issues they are learning about on multiple levels.” In addition, McMillan believes that we need to open up more spaces on campus to have conversations about challenging issues and it is necessary to learn how to have these conversations. 

Commenting on the award itself McMillan said, “I’m thrilled to be awarded something with an amazing team of people. My colleagues have been fantastic and it has been wonderful to work with them and the students. If it wasn’t for the students giving us feedback, helping us to understand the value of it [it wouldn’t have happened]; it gives me hope around this work. I’ve got a sense of responsibility now to do something with it and it validates a kind of different way of thinking about teaching and learning.” Others who teach on the course include: Professor Vanessa Watson, Associate Professor Jane English, Professor Ulrike Rivett, Dr Jane Battersby-Lennard, Dr Mercy Brown-Luthango, Ms Jesse Burton, Mr Hilton Trollip, Dr Lisa Kane, Professor Harro von Blottnitz and Associate Professor Tanja Winkler. 

With the award money the team hopes to conduct in-depth research into various aspects of the course such as analysing evaluations and discovering what past students are doing now. One particular avenue McMillan would like to pursue is if whether there is a correlation between the SI course and student confidence in their academic studies now that they see the value in what they are doing.  Another avenue is to explore the link between learning on this course and how students might be building on it as professionals and citizens. The prize will thus feed back into the outstanding collaborative work itself.