Transformation of institutional cultures, and curricula, is feasible when done in consultation with students; UKZN demonstrates

Using arts-based data collection methodologies of metaphor drawing, photo voice and letter writing, researchers at the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN) have "unearthed the silenced voices" of rural-origin students, thus generating a minefield of information with potential to influence change in institutional culture – and possibly curricula in the Humanities, Health Sciences and other fields of study.

Professor Relebohile Moletsane

This is how Professor Relebohile Moletsane (left), the JL Dube Chair in Rural Education in the School of Education at UKZN, recently summed up findings of a study titled Re-Centering Rurality and uncovering the hidden curriculum: Narratives of rural-origin students in a South African university. Professor Moletsane is the Principal Investigator in this project that is seeking to understand how rural-origin students in higher education spaces experience, respond to and contest the "hidden curriculum", and to establish how these experiences and responses can inform change in UKZN's institutional culture.

The Re-Centering Rurality study is part of a five-year project known as Unsettling Paradigms: The Decolonial Turn in the Humanities Curriculum at Universities in South Africa. Started in 2017, the Unsettling Paradigms project is unfolding through 30 research undertakings spread across eight research-intensive universities, driven by Universities South Africa's Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG). Funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the project is being co-ordinated from the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Humanities.

Early in September, the TLSG hosted a virtual Colloquium to present insights from four of these 30 pilot projects. Professor Moletsane was one of the four scholars presenting at the webinar.

This education scholar explained that the UKZN study was broadly influenced by an on-going concern across the university sector, over low completion rates among students, and the absence of a coherent explanation for this phenomenon. She acknowledged a number of research projects that had sought to get to the bottom of this challenge, citing studies looking into students' backgrounds (the mismatch between students' homes, communities and schools and higher education institutions) as one factor, and the unpreparedness of higher education institutions (to change institutional cultures and practices) as the other.

Project aims

She said there was a need to focus on the largely unchanged institutional cultures and practices – hence her team's choice to investigate and understand how rural-origin students in higher education spaces experience, respond to and contest the "hidden curriculum"; to use the gained understanding to facilitate institutional dialogue about the hidden curriculum and to better support the education of rural-origin (and other marginalised) students in the university; and also to engage curriculum developers and policy-makers at UKZN in exploring, with the students, alternative structures, relationships, norms and values as a strategy to challenge and disrupt the hidden curriculum.

Professor Moletsane defined the "hidden curriculum" as the informal curriculum, essentially the collective of "implicit messages that students encounter through their various stages of interaction with the university and also in their interactions with others in the university." She added that these, combined, tended to generate patterns of success or failure in specific groups, for example, in students from middle-class backgrounds vs students from poor and rural backgrounds.

Methodology and data gathering

Focusing on first-year Medical and Education students of rural origin in 2019, Professor Moletsane's research group (namely Professors Bernhard Gaede and Andrew Ross from the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine and Dr Lungile Masinga and Ms Lisa Wiebesiek from the School of Education) utilised the Participatory Visual Methodology to field their research questions. She said this method is premised on the understanding that people who experience a problem are best placed to describe the issue that they are experiencing. "Our project is therefore participatory and collaborative in nature. It is consultative and collegial," she pronounced to the Colloquium audience.

Fieldwork entailed a series of workshops in 2019, during which the researchers used three arts-based methods of data gathering. The first of those methods was metaphor drawing, a technique that enables participants to take a reflective look at their ideas, feelings about and experiences of a social issue. This entails depicting one's feelings in drawings and describing those in discussions with fellow study participants. In this exercise, the rural-origin students were instructed to draw two pictures: one that expressed their positive experiences at the university and the one that laid out negative experiences.

In the second method, photo voice, the participants were required to each take two photographs: one that demonstrated a sense of belonging at the university, and the other that depicted a sense of not belonging. In the third and last method, of letter writing, the researches prompted the participants to take a good look at their own picture on their student card, and to write a letter to the younger self, focussing on what might have helped them get through first year of university.

Key Insights

In the responses given through metaphor drawing, at the positive end of the spectrum, the feeling of being welcome at the university was depicted, in just one example, in drawings of provision of transport and wifi. "We are treated like kings and queens," the student said, of his/her positive experience at UKZN.

  • Positive experiences: what worked
We are treated like kings and queens

At the negative end, one medical student drew a medical scrub and stethoscope and wrote alongside these images: What if I cannot afford these?

  • Struggling to "fit in"
What if I cannot afford these?

In demonstrating the sense of belonging or not belonging through the photo voice, the students captured images of unequal power through signs and symbols on campus.

  • Unequal power of signs and symbols on campus
Unequal power of signs and symbols on campus

They demonstrated the role of the built environment in giving students a sense of belonging or achieving the direct opposite.

  • The role of the Built Environment (welcoming and unwelcoming spaces)
The Role of the Built Environment

They also shared images of enormous academic workloads that suddenly confronted them at university.

Among the letters written to the students' younger selves, a student in Education had commended her younger self for making it through first year through mere perseverance and consistence. The student was also encouraging her younger self to accept that certain things she could help change at university but some, she could not. In another letter, a medical peer warned her younger self that Focus And God were three most important words that would help sustain her medical studies and propel her to success. Focus was about setting goals and staying focused on achieving those. This meant committing to studying at all times, even when she did not feel like it. God, on the other hand, was the force to turn to when all else seemed to fall out of place.

Study participants in discussion
After completing their exercises in metaphor drawing, capturing photo voices and letter writing, the study participants gathered with their peers and the researchers to discuss their feelings as depicted in the various works of art.

Professor Moletsane told the webinar participants that she was struck the most when the students kept emphasising, repeatedly, in their subsequent discussions, that there are too many people at the university. On finding solutions towards achieving some sense of belonging, the Principal Investigator said she was highly encouraged when the students showed resolve to draw on their own strengths, and to open their minds up to allow themselves to learn from others. "Surprisingly, they were also intent to not rely on support from us, as academics. Professor Moletsane said. "They rather expressed a need for supporting each other as peers."

An unfinished phase in the study

The milestones described above provided important building blocks to the study. Professor Moletsane and team had planned to use the visual artefacts collected from students to curate exhibitions across the five UKZN campuses -- that would facilitate dialogues among members of the university community. Regrettably, the long and protracted student protests at the beginning of 2020 derailed this plan, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Beyond the exhibitions and campus dialogues, the researchers had planned to facilitate a process of advocacy, where students would lobby policymakers and curriculum developers of the university about the issues that they encounter and, by so doing, negotiate transformation through curricular and extra-curricular interventions and at UKZN.

The opportunity to complete this outstanding phase is not lost, though. Professor Moletsane is optimistic that this work will resume during the early months of 2021. For now, students and staff are frantically catching up on lost time in preparation for end-of-year examinations.

Ultimately, Professor Moletsane believes that the Re-Centering Rurality study has made methodological contributions to Humanities research. She says she learned through this project that research and community engagement are not mutually exclusive: scholars can do one as well as the other. Having successfully used the participatory arts-based methods to unearth the silenced voices of rural-origin students, and to conduct multi-disciplinary analyses through a Humanities lens, the education researcher surmised that visual artefacts are useful tools for stimulating dialogues within the UKZN community, with good potential to change the status quo.

The question still lingering in their minds, though, remains how they will sustain these critical dialogues beyond the funded period. She has explained that:

  1. UKZN has five campuses spread across two cities, of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. This has implications for transport costs for students, mainly, but also for the researchers.
  2. The students would also need to be transported from their own campuses (even when dialogues are in their own city) and provided with meals.

Asked what her next project would be, if she could secure additional funding for more work in this context, Professor Moletsane says the next steps in this project would be to document what might work in a student-initiated policy making or programming process. "How might curriculum development and policymaking take students' perspectives seriously?" -- is what this education scholar would want to explore, next.

At the 7 September Colloquium, during the Q&A, several participants responded with comments and questions to Professor Moletsane. Those are captured below, with the responses that the Principal Investigator offered.

Question / comment: A very interesting study. I wonder how your students felt, being labelled "students of rural origin"? Did they not feel stigmatised? -- 'Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela.

Response: This is a good question, but it assumes something wrong with being acknowledged as coming from a rural origin. I come from a rural background, myself. I understand that some students might feel less than, by being referred to in these terms. However, students self-selected into the project in response to flyers we had sent out, inviting participants. Those who enrolled had self-identified as a result. I would need to interrogate how they felt about being labelled 'students of rural origin,' though. In our studies they showed appreciation for this space which was allowing them to engage among themselves and away from those who would probably have judged them.

Question: Were students positioned at the core of the curriculum construction project as co-constructors of this project, or are they positioned as pure research participants? -- Phumeza Kota-Nyati

Response: We attempted to make this a collaborative project. However, the students still looked up to – and saw us as researchers and understood themselves as participants. I look forward to the day when research will become truly democratic and does not separate researchers from the researched.

Question: Can you share the methodologies that you used to write and analyse the letters -- Mpho

Response: We used thematic analysis and critical discourse analysis to analyse the letters.

Comment: Your project illustrates the need for, and the urgency we need to ascribe to tackling artificial separation between learning as separate from knowledge, and knowledge as external to the process of knowing and doing. Your Project (it seems to me) elevates (and gives VOICE' to) often overlooked aspects in our Education system. -- Emmanuel Mgqwashu.

The Unsettling Paradigms project is just one of several projects being undertaken under the USAf umbrella towards transforming institutional cultures in public universities. The goal is to create student-centric cultures where institutions engage in deliberate actions to understand the type of students they have enrolled; their strengths, weaknesses and challenges, and to use this understanding to create responsive and supportive cultures to optimise the students' success.

In a partnership with the University of the Free State's Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), USAf's TSLG started in 2019 to deepen the understanding of senior educators from all universities, of insights emerging from student engagement and experience research undertaken by Professor Francois Strydom, Director at the CTL, and his team of researchers.

Professor Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, in his capacity as Chairperson of the TSLG, argued on one platform of engagement with senior educators from the university sector, that "student access to university that does not yield success, is worse than no access at all.

"If those students who enter our university system completed in the shortest possible time, we would have served our society better," Dr Mabizela told the gathering of senior education leaders, who comprised directors, heads of schools and departments, deans, all the way up to deputy vice-chancellors.

This article is the fourth in a series developed from the 7 September Colloquium of the TLSG.


The author, 'Mateboho Green, is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.

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