Featured: Futuristic training labs could empower students for the 21st century

South Africa’s first futuristic teacher training labs at MANCOSA Durban signal that higher education institutions in the country are meeting expectations of the fourth industrial revolution. However, will this be an effective way forward for South Africa's teaching landscape?

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By Neesha Maharaj - Freelance Journalist

The recent launch of the iTeach Lab is set to provide innovative teacher training and is the first of its kind to combine elements of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics in seven unique hubs designed to prepare and empower student teachers for 21st-century learning.

The futuristic lab boasts another first – a virtual tour assistant robot, nicknamed "Manny", that has been built on augmented reality principles.

The rationale for creating such a teaching lab was aligning to the broader societal and technological shifts triggered by the fourth industrial revolution, hence this school of education is revolutionising traditional classroom teaching through bespoke teacher training programmes.

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Professor Zaheer Hamid, the Academic Director at MANCOSA, said the confluence of new technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution encourages the confluence of new technologies in institutions of higher learning to upskill, invigorate and enhance teacher education to be more relevant in the 21st century.

“The quality of teaching is inextricably linked to the ability to succeed in advancing our economy at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution.
“Equipping teachers with educational management and leadership skills ensures that they thrive as educational managers and enjoy a more progressive and fulfilling teaching career."

Hamid also said to produce high-quality educators for the classrooms, the quality of teacher training has to be enhanced.

According to Hamid, this new initiative supports the proactive use of technology to enable teacher readiness and to promote impactful learner outcomes to address the employability agenda, with special emphasis on scarce specialised teaching skills in mathematics and science.

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The futuristic training lab exposes students to innovative, compelling and interactive methods of teaching in the form of simulated and “live-in” classrooms. Student teachers will experience various environments, situation and contexts and develop into hyperfunctioning teachers with the mental fortitude to succeed in diverse teaching environments.

“The first of the seven hubs in the iTeach Lab is a collaborative workspace that allows students to explore their creative side whilst developing both critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills.
"Here students will also have access to state-of-the-art technology such as 3D printers and laser cutters, which they can use to build products that will either help simplify learning or which they can commercialise, thus fostering entrepreneurship,” added Hamid.

Are futuristic labs a threat to traditional, tried-and-tested methods?

Academics indicated that introducing new advanced technology in teacher training might be viewed as a threat to the more traditional teaching methods that have stood the test of time; however, futuristic labs have a lot of positive skills to convey to students which are needed for the information age we live in.

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Professor Desmond Govender, Discipline Leader within the Discipline of Computer Science Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said any project that focuses on allowing students to develop skills to curate, e-communicate, innovate, think critically, process information and solve complex problems is worthy of note.

“There are a huge range of theories that explain why technology is adopted, when technology spreads and what is needed to be effective when teaching with technology.
"However, presently we need more focus on how to use technology effectively for teaching. This means the pedagogy of using technology for technology is crucial,” said Govender.

Education experts have indicated that a futuristic lab contains a myriad of benefits for the holistic development of the information age student.

Students are exposed to automation and robotics; mathematics is presented using fun, creative and magical methodology; literature and writing skills of students are inculcated in a virtual format instead of what might be deemed as a boring traditional format. Culture and how it enriches teaching and learning is encouraged and a science laboratory facilitate experiments in chemistry, physics, biology and science concepts in a hands-on approach.

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Futuristic teaching labs provide a slew of benefits for students

These include:

Digital technology has also forced teachers to adopt new teaching methods. New and advanced teaching methods have been adopted where teachers use social media, blogs and podcasts in their lessons.

Web conferencing technologies are also used. With learning tools such as text-to-speech converter and voice recognition equipment and translators, teachers don’t find it difficult teaching special needs students either.

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The advantages and disadvantages of futuristic learning

While futuristic teaching labs have the wow factor, experts have warned of the disadvantages of too much digitisation in the lecture rooms.

The downside of digitisation of education include:

Misuse of technology occurs whereby students view computers, mobile devices and other technological devices as tools of entertainment and to play games.

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Instructional challenges are likely to exist among teachers who are used to teaching in more traditional methods. They may not be trained regularly and do not stay abreast of the latest digital technology.

Teachers shun technology in teaching because they don’t think it's convenient to use for this purpose and teachers believe it has a negative effect on the attention span of their students.

Why traditional teaching methods are better

Teaching practices matter more than the technological device used to teach. Having a teacher in a classroom with sophisticated human expertise is what counts.

Traditional teaching methods of having students recite and memorise knowledge imparted by the teacher is still widespread and believed to be a good way of conveying knowledge to students.

Traditionalists believe that students stay more focused, do not rely heavily on technology and do not become lazy if traditional teaching methods are maintained.

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Experts suggest that blended learning is the route to take where both traditional teaching methods and modern technology are used to educate students.

A common ground needs to be found so students are aware of the significance of traditional teaching methods. This should be coupled with the use of technology but not to the extent where students don’t focus or are distracted by the entertainment value of technology and forget about learning.

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