Fees protests’ smart spin-off

They quietly go about bringing change – through the advancement of medicine, empowering students, saving the environment or helping communities. A pioneering group of Nelson Mandela University academics has been honoured at the institution’s Research, Teaching and Engagement Awards.

Shelley Saunders│Fees protests’ smart spin-off

Shelley Saunders came up with an innovative system to ensure her students did not fall behind
Shelley Saunders came up with an innovative system to ensure her students did not fall behind

At the height of the #FeesMustFall movement in 2016, lecturer Shelley Saunders came up with an innovative system to ensure her students did not fall behind – and she continues to use it.

Saunders, a business management lecturer at Nelson Mandela University, shifted most of her modules online, and made sure her students could access them as easily and cheaply as possible, using little data and the most basic smart phones.

This system and the way she ensures her lectures are as relevant and current as possible are among the reasons Saunders was awarded Nelson Mandela University’s Excellent Teacher of the Year Award at the annual Research, Teaching and Engagement awards

“Teaching, for me, is about making a difference in someone’s life,” said Saunders, 29, who has been lecturing in the faculty of business and economic sciences for the past seven years and has just completed her doctoral studies in business management.

She says teaching at universities today – with institutional and curriculum transformation high on the agenda – requires teachers to think creatively and broadly.

“As university lecturers, we have to be very adaptive and bring what’s happening around us into the content we teach You have to be willing to learn with your students and realise it takes a number of different viewpoints to give a holistic perspective of an idea.”

With SA’s high unemployment rate, she also encourages her students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset – and gives them practical projects to help them develop these skills.

For instance, in her international marketing class for third years, students had to identify an existing and unique township-produced product – and develop a marketing plan to export these to another country.

“A lot of the students chose clothing or food, but some found really interesting items – like sandals made with Environmentally friendly material and tyre soles, and ‘wonder bags’, which act like slow cookers to reduce cooking time.”

Saunders never dreamt she’d be a lecturer.

“Teaching found me During my studies in business management [at Nelson Mandela University], I realised that the more I was sharing with people [as a tutor], the more I was becoming in love with teaching.”

She started her teaching career at CTI Education Group (now linked with the Pearson Institute) in 2010, before shifting to Nelson Mandela University the following year.

“I love technology and using online platforms, like Moodle [an open-source learning platform, used by Nelson Mandela University].

“I have a heart for blended learning [combining traditional talk-and-chalk teaching with online teaching], and its implications for the faculty and the university.”

She uploads randomised quizzes and content onto Moodle, along with student polls – and she can even check for plagiarism using the tool.

And students can access all this, and submit their work, with their mobile devices.

With some of her classes accommodating 1,000 students, a tool like this is invaluable – but Saunders says it could serve an even greater purpose.

“In South Africa, a huge problem is access.

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of students apply to universities, but we don’t have space to accommodate them all.

“Technology-based learning could open up doors to lots more students.”