Polokwane's Ready For 2010

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My most recent trip was to Polokwane and the University of the Limpopo.  

It turned out I arrived during peak campaigning for students council. The campus was buzzing as different groups were holding rallying throughout the campus. Singing echoed out form the cafeterias so John (one of our respondents and my very helpful on the ground organiser) and I decided we ought to meet in a back up venue. As John is a e-learning facilitator he had organised us one of the computer labs to meet as well. Not quite right for a focus group but we moved things around and created a space to talk f2f.  Just as our participants were gathering there was a power cut and the lab was plunged into darkness. We waited 10 min but there was no sign of any solution and the labs didn’t have a backup generator. A couple of students trickled into the dark but this wasn’t going to work for a venue. I suggested we just meet outside as it was a lovely evening and there and the walk way lights were powered up. But then we discovered that the General Secretary of the Limpopo ANC was addressing the students in the hall across the way (not a quiet occasion). Resourcefully the students knew exactly which buildings had backup power and we found an unlocked mini lecture theatre in a nice peaceful and quiet location to use. 

Whilst student don’t say fundamentally different things in the focus groups (compared to phone interviews) what is different is how they feed off each others stories and comments noticing whats similar or different about their experiences. Once one student admits to feeling completely daunted when first confronted by computers the other s will all smile and nod and tell you how they felt when they first had to use a pc at university. Whats different is not the story but the way they tell it when in a face to face group. The feeling that comes out when they say they cant imagine not using or needing to use a computer everyday of their lives. How now their families in the villages might have a computer at home and how they have become their teachers.

Aside from the research my one other highlight in Polokwane was friendly genuinely helpful people. Campus security  who asked a student to hop in the car with me to  show me where to going on campus and opened locked gates at 8pm for me when I found myself at the wrong exit. Nandos (where I ordered a platter for the focus group)  who phoned ME to confirm order and pick up 3 times, and hotel staff that were efficient and very friendly . Polokwane are seriously gearing up for the World Cup Soccer and given their demonstration of efficiency and  service I’m sure they will pull it off well. I’s starting to think Telkom should relocate their head office there J

Technology Highs And Lows

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Technology got the better of me twice last week and saved me once. Very embarrassingly I arrived In Grahamstown marginally late for my seminar (plane delay) to turn up the wrong hill (in trying to get to Rhodes University) and managed to get stuck because I couldn’t get the hire car into reverse. I pushed, I pulled, I twisted, I tweaked but to no avail. I had given up on using my personal intuition (which was obviously non -existent) and was weighing up calling the hire company or my husband when Markus (my colleague from Rhodes) came running up the hill to my rescue. Mildly out of breath (thank goodness everything in GT really is only 1 block away) he calming hops in the drivers seat and asks me if I tried pulling up holding on some funny little button and promptly reverses the car. Thanks Markus.

But thanks to my little laptop I managed to run into the seminar with powerpoint all on and ready to go and literally just plug and play (even though I had a second moment of panic when I realised I hadn’t ever actually used the laptop with a data projector and I had no idea how).  But no problems there and I  hope I managed to salvage my image somewhat. Nothing more contradictory than a person who is reporting on ICT use unable to use the technology herself so “thanks little laptop”.

The seminar I gave was on Laura and my Blurring boundaries paper which describes all the ways ICTs are both simultaneously strengthening and weakening the teaching and learning relationship. The discussion was really interesting as Markus’s Rhodes colleagues shared some of their experiences using LMS’s. An environmental sciences lecturer shared how (when Masters students at a distance) were  assessed the forum was not used spontaneously but when assessment was not involved it became much more active as students used it to stay in touch with each other. An economics lecturer shared how she was making the LMS forum work for her large class and how students were spontaneous until the lecturers “voice of authority” stepped in and then discussion froze. No matter how informal or validating she tried to make her comments.

That over I thought I had better sms “home” to let family know I’d arrived safely to find cell battery flat. Having borrowed my husband GPS phone to travel with I found myself flummoxed as to have to open it to retrieve my sim card to put back in my phone. Applying a systematic strategy I managed to increase the volume, eject a memory card, switch off the phone but no sign of a sim. Thankfully when I walked into a cell outlet the young lady behind the counter niftily inserted her long nail under a cover and just popped the back off. I was once again rescued

Happily the focus group went very smoothly & students attended despite 2 having a 7pm exam. And I was again amazed about the diversity of approaches and use within a group with similar access. One thing that struck me about Rhodes was the diversity of students. They came from all over SA and beyond. And they ranged for constant users (always connected via chat and facebook no matter where they were and what they were doing) to students who used technology reservedly cautious about social networking sites and tools and sectioning their technology usage appropriately  between lectures, studying and recreation. I was also struck by the fact that some students irrespective of background could not think of a single “roadlock” in their technology journey.

Talking To Students: Alice

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After WSU we embarked on the drive back through East London to Alice – some 5 hours. The drive was easier as there was less traffic and no rain so I was more confident on the roads.  Driving into Alice was a complete contrast for different reasons. One of the largest faculties there is agriculture and one is confronted by green green pastures and lots and lots of dairy cows before encountering the  FH Alice campus. An old campus with almost Victorian style white buildings with red roofs all constructed very geometrically around squares with fountains and green space. The dynamic at FH was very different.  Perhaps because there is a greater diversity of language groups more students were happy to talk in English although obviously understood isiXhosa well. And there was a far greater diversity of experience both in terms of the disciplines in which the students were studying and their backgrounds. They weren’t all local with some being Zimbabwean and others coming from Soweto saying they chose to come to FH because there were less distractions here than at the big unis and they could focus on their studies.

Certainly there appeared to be not just less but NO distractions in Alice. Aside from a Chinese take out (which the students think had disappeared) their eating options were the student hall or self catering. There was a HUGE reliance on technology for entertainment with laptops needed for playing movies as they lacked TV’s. Many were stuck in res all weekend on campus with no outside entertainment although they said there were sometimes parties in the student hall. I suppose its not surprising then that tensions can run rife (as exemplified by the death of one of the stduents we'd interviewed by phone due to head injuries sustained from an apparent fight with another student).

Ones of the impressions I got  here during the focus groups was that whilst for the WSU students technology was a highly desired resources and critical for their learning, at UFH it was also critical to students ability to survive what  appears to be quite an isolated existence in some cases.

Crossing SA Talking To Students: Mthatha

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In next series of blog postings I will informally reflect  on the focus group sessions we are conducting in 5 unis across SA.


The first of which has involved a trip to the eastern cape visiting two universities Walter Sisulu and fort hare. Huge amount of driving to get to the various campus’s all located in quite rural settings – Mthatha and Alice.
I am writing this sitting in East London airport because apparently my flight left early? Never heard that one before. Granted I was a bit late but 30 mins early? Hummmm an SAA first for me. Apparently in EL even with no baggage and an electronic ticket you need to check in an hour beforehand. So here I am at the wimpy waiting and thought what a good time to blog. Seeing as I have been meaning to blog for weeks before I headed off to do focus groups and have never found the time.

Of course I have no inernet access either so had to wait to get back to Cape town to post my blog!!


Walter Sisulu Uni is a majestic campus that catches ones eye immediately as one enters mthatha.

 

 After rolling hills and scattered villages, plenty of roadside animal traffic and a rather stop/ start drive (lots of road works fixing what has become a rather infamous potholed road in South Africa), its imposing brick buildings surrounded by green grass and trees mark the landscape. Its been a landmark for a while as the building were originally the University of the Transkei. Zolani (our isiXhosa interviewer and translator) who was travelling with me said that he always used to drive past the university as a child thinking it was beautiful and wishing one day he could go there (he ended up at university in cape town but I think was always a bit nostalgic that he didn’t go to WSU).


Not knowing the campus we had planned to conduct our focus group at the holiday inn across the road (the most expensive holiday inn in south Africa!). The students started to arrive well before the scheduled time, most walking over in groups. They all called us from outside the building not wanting to walk into the foyer unless escorted by us. They had dressed extremely smartly and many carried folders and briefcases. I think a clear indication that they were taking our visit very seriously. One had even got permission from a lecturer to postpone a test due to our prior arrangement. Our meeting looked so interesting we even had a gate crasher (another student who was there for another meeting and thought he would just join our group while he waited).

 

Our student participants with Zolani on the left. Interestingly only 1 of female particpant arrived despite 4 being invited.

The students clearly understood English well but were much more comfortable talking in isiXhosa. Once we’d settled down into a relatively private space we started the focus group. I would ask the questions and Zolani would translate. We had told the students we were fine with them talking in whatever language they were comfortable with. Students would often start their response in English but slip into isiXhosa quickly especially when recounting any personal story of their ICT journey. They were very quiet and slow to come out of their shells but once they started talking they would become animated and  determined to tell you their perspective. I could see them warming up to the process and each other. They would laugh and smile and nod at what each other were saying. My impressions despite the language barrier (me not understanding isiXhosa), were that these students had worked hard to get where they were. Almost all were doing a degree that involved some kind of professional use of Icts eg computer science, IS etc. They all remembered the year in which they had first started using a computer without a thought. Like it was embedded in their memory like the year they finished school or the year they started university. What was  also noticeable to me was that once they started talking specifically about their use of particular types of technology they did so more often in English. Most of them used facebook or mixit or gchat or gtalk. In the realm of technology explicitly English is much  more dominant in contrast to their story of how they came to use technology which is more personal and which 7 of the 8 students did in isiXhosa.


They were keen to get their photos taken as a group and asked me how they could put this on their CV’s. Also many want to connect with me on facebook so we decided we should set up a FB group for the focus groups,  These students are good networkers. When they arrived in groups I asked whether they knew each other. They said not really – some were in the same class together but when I sent out a group sms’s about the meeting they connected with other students on the list and made contact. Clearly they make every contact with ple count. I was amused to see that when asked to do a drawing at the end of the session that mapped out the network or people they are in contact with using technology that one student had Zolani and I specifically as a subset of his technology network. I don’t think this is the last we’ll hear of them :-)


Next. Our trip to Fort Hare Alice campus