Students know more than you think, they just think differently to you
Dr Cesarina Edmonds-Smith is a lecturer in chemistry in the Science Faculty at UCT. As a former high school science teacher, her teaching philosophy centres around the idea that students know more than you think, they just think differently to you. With that in mind, she has come to realise just how outdated and irrelevant some chemistry textbooks are when looking through the eyes of a South African student. Cesarina believes that if you engage with students and ask them to explain what they understand, you have a better idea of how the students think and you can apply that insight in your teaching.
In February 2019, Cesarina and her colleague Dr Chris Barnett were awarded a grant from the DOT4D project to develop the “Ingxoxo” (isiXhosa for conversation, discussion) platform. Through this collaboration, they are exploring a forum-based approach to peer-to-peer learning and open textbook development.
What is the problem she is trying to address using open textbooks?
Students who join UCT do so from all corners of South Africa and bring with them a wide range of schooling, cultures and experiences of the world. This, along with the fact that South Africa has 11 official languages, means that many first-year students face significant skills gaps in their transition from high school to university education.
In line with Cesarina's belief in the value of peer learning approaches, she aims to leverage the fact that students are well placed to explain concepts to each other, often doing so in their mother tongue rather than the formal language of instruction and using examples that are relevant and understandable to their generation.
The Ingxoxo platform serves as a forum for student discussions around first-year physical chemistry in any South African language and provides a safe, comfortable space for students who may not feel comfortable to speak in lectures to pose questions and contribute to discussions. Questions are answered by fellow students as well as by course lecturers.
The platform provides Cesarina and her collaborator Chris Barnett with an opportunity to learn from their students – in terms of understanding where the missing links are between the lecturer, the work and the student; taking note of how students explain concepts to their peers; and bringing students to the forefront of the teaching process by encouraging them to use the Ingxoxo platform to explain concepts and provide feedback on lecture content.
Ingxoxo contains links to video and audio explanations as well as other resources posted by first-year students and the Ingxoxo community which are relatable to South African and African experiences with chemistry. These new ideas and explanations of chemical concepts that are relevant to the South African student will be compiled into an openly licensed, online, mixed-media e-book, co-authored by the students to allow for a fully inclusive look into first-year chemistry.
What is her authorship approach?
The Ingxoxo authorship model is based on a “social” approach in which students interact with a dynamic platform that mimics social media engagement principles, using “like”, linking, bookmarking and sharing functions as well as avatar options and user-friendly design. The forum runs on the Discourse app and posts can be formatted using Markdown, LaTeX / MathJax and mhchem.
Students are encouraged to get involved through modest incentivisation schemes, through which they receive chocolates, stickers and classroom accolades for frequent posting, responding to fellow students’ queries or translating content into another language. The idea is to accumulate content for the open textbook over many years of engagement, but to start the forum conversations afresh each year in the hope that this will enable students to feel at home in a virtual environment that is dedicated to them and their classmates’ specific needs.
The aim is for the textbook to be legally open for use at UCT as well as at other South African universities, although some concepts may have to be added, modified or deleted, based on the requirements of the course curriculum.