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North West University on the opportunity to re-think Higher Education

  • 4 Min Read

How technology can revolutionise the teaching and learning experience


As part of our University of the Future series, we spoke to leading institutions across South Africa to understand their vision for the future, and how they plan to realise these ambitions.

In this selection of interviews, we hear from our contributors about what’s on the horizon for higher education post Covid-19.

These are extended interviews that were conducted as part of the research for our University of the Future whitepaper. Read more from the University of the Future page series or download the whitepaper – What’s driving the vision for the South African University of the Future?- to explore how universities can embrace the opportunity to reimagine the university of the future.

Download the University of the Future whitepaper Now

These are extended interviews that were conducted as part of the research for our University of the Future South Africa whitepaper. Read more from the series or click Read more from the University of the Future series here to receive a copy of the whitepaper.

Professor Herman van der Merwe, Deputy Dean: Teaching & Learning, North West University (NWU)

What has been the biggest change for NWU since the Coronavirus pandemic first struck?

The biggest change has been the realisation that technology can help us to completely re-imagine the teaching and learning experience. I’ve spent many years advocating how central technology should be to higher education. The rapid shift to online brought about by the pandemic has led most people to realise that we will not, and should not, go back to our old ways of doing things.

We’ve seen great engagement levels from students over the past year. This is possibly because it feels more anonymous communicating via tech, and therefore people feel less inhibited. We now need to spend more time analysing student behaviour – when they log on, how much they engage, the types of content they respond to etc, so that we can continue to tailor and personalise the learning experience.

What challenges need to be overcome to realise the vision for the future?

The key is to continue to empower staff and learners to get the most out of the technology available to them. Throughout the pandemic we held weekly webinars with staff where we shared best practice and encouraged them to bring new ideas of how we can continue to innovate. It’s vital that everyone feels part of the journey.

Aside from ensuring that staff are empowered and trained, there are also fundamental challenges around access to technology in South Africa. Students need reliable devices and connectivity, but the move to online learning has demonstrated where the problems lie here. So many rural areas are often without power. While we have provided students with devices and mobile data packages when they have needed it, we are still reliant on the underlying infrastructure being sufficient, and that just isn’t the case currently.

How can we change the way we learn and equip students for work?

We have an opportunity to rethink higher education. Why can’t we be more flexible in how and when we learn, for example? We currently only use about 20 of the 52 weeks in the year, with lots of that time being taken up with admin. Technology enables us to free up this admin time, giving teachers more time to teach. It can also help students to learn at their own pace, and even decide when they’re ready to take an exam. 

The key is to use technology to personalise the learner journey more. Enabling them to take control in this way, re-doing modules they didn’t perform well on, or repeating semesters, for instance, would help to improve success and completion rates. 

We also want to produce graduates who can hit the ground running when it comes to employability. Applied knowledge is vital. We want students to be able to demonstrate their learning. Let’s get architecture students working on projects directly, rather than just showing them, for example. And let’s make sure that students are working together more, and across disciplines. Everyone who collaborates to find an answer, learns.

We also have extended programs in place to ensure that students are more prepared across the 4Cs of computing, calculations, communications and comprehension – critical skills they will need in the workplace. We need to provide access to wider learning, beyond a student’s core subject. These can be everything from enrichment courses, such as photography, to ‘just in case’ modules like maths or statistics. Technology is enabling all of this to happen and it’s the key to realising our vision for the future.

Herman van der Merwe

Prof Herman van der Merwe calls himself a “recycled Geneticist”, but his previous Vice-Chancellor renamed him “e-Man” to capture his fascination for the use and management of technology in education!

Prof Herman is currently Deputy Dean of the Faculty Economic and Management Sciences at the North-West University, responsible for Teaching and Learning across all three campuses of the NWU. He is also the CEO of an expert centre called CUTE (Centre for the Utilisation of Technology in Education).

The Serious Games Institute, AppFactory and a community of practise in innovative teaching and learning with technology (iTLT) support his research initiatives and the empowerment initiatives of staff and students in a creative environment.

As a true Entrepreneur at heart, he stimulates entrepreneurship on Campus and in the University through the bhive Enterprise Development Centre.

The current Female Entrepreneurship programme of the NWU is his brainchild and is becoming one of the flagship and sought after short learning programmes at the NWU.

A research entity and Chair in Entrepreneurship is one of his dreams for the Faculty and the NWU!

In 2015 the North-West University recognised his contribution to innovation with an “Innovation Evangelist” award.

He is a keen nature lover and to recharge his batteries; he will do something in nature to listen to what the wind and the birds want to share with him.

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Table of Contents
  1. Professor Herman van der Merwe, Deputy Dean: Teaching & Learning, North West University (NWU)