Thursday, 31 January 2013

Making friends: The hidden structures in social groups

I am priviledged in the sense that I am part of the establishment of a new campus -- one that will become the new University of Mpumalanga. My gaze, however, is less on the promise of a new university and the voids it will fill, but more on the first intake of students for the Foundation Phase.

We don't know the students, and they don't know us. They don't know each other, either. So, apart from leaving it to themselves to come to know each other, institutions all over the world use all kinds of activities to ensure that individuals settle into their new environment. Above all, the aim of these activities is for people to learn how to start functioning as a group -- as a collective.

My gaze remains fixed on the actions - the individuals who stop participating and choose to become onlookers; the energy and the rhythm of the games - traditional games that I guess many city dwellers have forgotten about. I was surely reminded of a few games I use to play when I was small. That's another bonus for Foundation Phase. Its our job to play since in Grade R to 3 children learn predominantly through play.

Which brings me back to networks: the groups we form, the associations we make, the ties we form all serve a purpose. And another point. At some point in school we stop playing and learning becomes boring, tedious and difficult. Why not focus more on edutainment? And what about the workplace. If we learn new things, when we get challenged and need to solve a problem -- why not play more? Solutions are crafted when minds are challenged and what better way to do it than through play.

... so, when making new friends, or forming alliances... finally energy resides in the network and behaviour will shape the network as much as the network will shape individuals and their behaviour. Luckily we have Social Network Analysis to unearth the characteristics of networks, which aids with our understanding of dysfunctionalities within groups. It also shows who holds power and influence... Can't wait to start charting the ties between nodes.

The essence of being

It took considerable courage for me to put down everything, block out the noise and pick up the book. Its overcast outside, the kind of weather one would expect to encounter in London NOT Johannesburg in early summer. Its Saturday and I don't need to be at work. Exhausted after a week of traveling to the school where I try my best to teach students for whom school seems an unnecessary stumbling block, staying in bed a bit longer than usual was especially welcome.

I recently received five copies of Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. Reading Ghost Boy was not going to be easy. Martin Pistorius's life story is a moving one, since he fell ill as a child and became trapped in an unresponsive body. Yet, once he came out of his coma no-one actually knew that he was  intelligent and completely aware of his surroundings. In fact, he could follow conversations. Being placed in front of a TV for long periods meant that he was "re-schooled". While other stimuli like the radio also sometimes filled his days, it only became apparent much later that there was a real boy inside the awkward-looking body. However, Martin couldn't react and communicate - it was as if he didn't exist. Few people would actually look at him or speak to him directly, apart from his parents and of course a few care-takers that assisted him medically.

In Ghost Boy, Martin describes his journey from falling ill and the slow progress in getting his body to come alive again. The frustration of learning how to communicate makes for compelling reading. Martin's progress in this regard is closely linked with the development of artificial communication made possible by progress in computer technology and work at the University of Pretoria, amongst others.

Its a story of a life as a ghost boy that nearly became trapped in a permanent state of lock-down. It is, however, also a story of the triumph of the human spirit in the wake of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Being locked down in an unresponsive body and a seemingly inability to escape from this state underlines the one thing that sets humans apart: we communicate not only what is real, but also what we imagine. Martin's vivid descriptions reminded me once again of this distinguishing factor. However, what could have easily become a heavy script is often well-balanced with a light-heartedness stemming from Martin's long intelligent 'observer status' unknown to the people who came into contact with him or merely passed through his immediate environment. In his book Martin manages to reflect upon his experiences in a way that is inspiring and gripping. He does this in a style that is undramatic without diminishing the real horror of his condition, especially revealing the truth about the abuse he suffered at the hands of some of the caretakers.

Thank you Martin for not giving up.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Tertiary Education in South Africa - Some developments

Following the developments of Education in South Africa

Education in South Africa - Info SA

I am fortunate enough to be part of a new development in tertiary education. Efforts to establish a new university in Mpumalanga has brought together a number of roleplayers and stakeholders which has resulted in the launch of the Teacher Education Campus in Marble Hall.

The University of Johannesburg provides the academic program -- one that is unique in the sense that it involves a teaching school. Initially introduced at the Soweto Campus, this approach to Teacher Training proves to be successful. Similar in principal to an academic hospital for trainee doctors, the teaching school offers teachers-to-be the opportunity to observe a fully functional, real-world school.

The establishment of a new university in the Mpumalanga province is an opportunity to be based in a rural part of South Africa. The aim with this multi-stakeholder initiative is to train students from rural areas in the hope that they will return to schools in rural areas. The first program is at the Foundation Phase, Grade R to Grade 3. Often, once students from the countryside go to urban-based universities where they also experience the Big City, they are loathe to return to the country-side. It is here, in fact, where South Africa needs young, new-generation, inspiring teachers the most.

Other stakeholders in the Teacher Education Campus at Siyabuswa include the National Institute of Higher Education (Mpumalanga), the National Department of Higher Education and Training and the Mpumalanga Department of Education. In time staff, including myself, will use the University of Johannesburg's offical Social Media Channels. However, I will also share experiences and my personal views on my personal blog, thereby building an online artifact.