Capacity building in ecological informatics: Lessons from the DST/CSIR learnership programme in South Africa
First Monday

Capacity building in ecological informatics: Lessons from the DST/CSIR learnership programme in South Africa



Abstract
This paper provides the lessons learned from an attempt by the South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to develop a National Information Society Learnership in Ecological Informatics (NISL: EI). Ten unemployed graduates were selected in 2004 to be part of two years NISL: EI learnership programme. The results show that the programme had succeeded in making candidates employable, with 90 percent of the learners working in different science and technology sectors, and two Honours degrees having been awarded. Challenges for higher level learnership development and implementation are identified and possible solutions are discussed.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Background to the Ecological Informatics programme
3. Criteria for selecting the first intake of learners
4. Practical and academic training approaches
5. Remuneration, employability and programme outcomes
6. Review of the programme: Developers’ perspective
7. Successes and failures of the programme
8. Conclusion

 


 

1. Introduction

Preparing youth for science careers is a challenge that most African countries experience. The challenge needs to be addressed urgently because science and technology have always been important investments for development (Watson, et al., 2003; Chataway, et al., 2005). The unprecedented pace of advancement in science is, however, creating new challenges for development as most developing countries are largely unprepared to deal with changes in science and technology are likely to bring (Watson, et al., 2003).

Challenges for science and technology development in Africa relate to limited financial resources, a poor education system (Saint, 1992; Gauci, 2001), lack of meaningful commitment towards science and inadequate science and technology institutional and legal frameworks (Salam, 1991; Watson, et al., 2003). Science and technology in Africa is also faced with challenges such as limited expenditure on research and development, limited public understanding of science and technology, and the “brain drain” associated with African scientists, engineers and technicians leaving the continent to work in other regions of the world (Rosswal, et al., 2004). We report here on one initiative that was successful in overcoming some of these challenges. The project assisted 10 disadvantage unemployable graduates and is able to claim an employment rate of 90 percent. Two candidates from that programme hold postgraduate qualifications.

 

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2. Background to the Ecological Informatics programme

The South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) identified a need for science and technology skills development, particularly for disadvantaged unemployed South African graduates. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was then commissioned to develop a learnership in Ecological Informatics, as part of the wider National Information Society Learnerships (NISL) project. The Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology (BCB) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was sub–contracted by the CSIR to coordinate and facilitate the academic part of the programme.

The CSIR and DST then organise a workshop and invited key stakeholders (future employers) to establish employment requirements. Feedback from the workshop was used to create the course curriculum (see Figure 1), which had three elective themes as focus areas. The courses were to be presented as distance learning modules. The first group of ten candidates then had to be identified and registered for an honours degree with the UWC.

 

Figure 1: Conceptual model of the proposed NISL: EI Learnership themes
Figure 1: Conceptual model of the proposed NISL: EI Learnership themes. Source: Van Deventer and Niehaus (2004).

 

 

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3. Criteria for selecting the first intake of learners

Criteria used to select candidates were based on feedback received from future employers. Group interviews were held and candidates were scanned for their ability to judge facts, show leadership, pay attention to detail and to be a team player. Learner’s analytical thinking, passion for the programme, presentability, self–confidence, and basic computer literacy were also tested. The first group of learners started their learnership programme in 2004, and the group was culturally, gender diverse and having multi–discipline academic backgrounds.

 

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4. Practical and academic training approaches

Learnership is the programme which integrates education and training. It involves learning to obtain a registered qualification, while acquiring practical work experience. Learners were based at the CSIR Pretoria campus for their practical training. A mentor was appointed to monitor and report on the progress of each learner to the programme coordinators. Where necessary other institutions were involved to assist with the practical training of learners. In such instances learners were deployed to work on active practical projects.

For the academic component, the learning materials were initially uploaded at the NISL Web site (http://nisl.uwc.ac.za/). Learners were required to create login accounts so that they could view, use or download course materials. Learners only engaged with their lecturers via e–mail messages and blogs. “Face–to–face” visits occurred when technical problems arose with a given course. This method was over–ambitious as it did not encourage learners to participate in the learning experience. Multimedia, specifically a verbal component, was added to presentation slides to try and overcome this barrier. The UWC then developed the Expression Engine, which integrated the blog–based learning platform. This technology was much more successful in delivering content and relatively easy for students to use.

 

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5. Remuneration, employability and programme outcomes

Learners were given a monthly stipend, which later became a bone of contention as learners felt they were entitled to a salary. This perception caused them to actively seek employment before completing the programme. This behaviour was not discouraged because employability was the main aim of the programme and it was believed that the learners could continue with their studies on a part–time basis. Some employers were keen to allow the learners to continue with their studies but most learners decided to drop out of the programme once they gained permanent employment.

 

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6. Review of the programme: Developers’ perspective

A period of at least two years is required to develop electronic course material before exposing the material to learners. This prolonged period allows developers to test technology and to manage the academic bureaucracy associated with registering the course with the qualifications authority. The initial technology platform changed a great deal, was too complicated and unstable for the environment in which it was deployed. Many man–hours were lost during the development of e–learning materials and training to address a multitude of bugs.

Communication was particularly difficult for the learners and no two–year intervention could fully “make up” for neglected skills development over a period of at least 15 years. The tertiary funding model in South Africa is also partially to blame as it drives unintended behaviour. Most universities are producing as many students as possible without considering the long–term consequences for those graduates who lack language, science, technology and innovation skills.

 

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7. Successes and failures of the programme

Looking at the programme from the learners’ point of view, all respondents were overwhelmingly positive about the need for learnership, but they did not support all components of the intervention. The practical component of the programme was seen to have been successful in reducing unemployment for the learners whereas they were doubtful about the academic component. All nine of the responding learners are working at different sectors, linked to their undergraduate training.

Ninety percent of the learners, when asked, were of the opinion that the programme had helped them to acquire skills needed in the work place. They further indicated that the learnership programme had given them an opportunity to interact with different people, work under pressure and as a team, share information and acquire skills to use new technologies. They were also of the opinion that the programme helped them to improve their communication and scientific report writing skills. All learners indicated that the programme should continue to recruit new unemployed graduates because it provides skills, which will make them employable in various sectors.

Learners were less optimistic with regards to the academic component of the programme. Only two learners managed to graduate with an honours degree from the University of the Western Cape. Learners have not been able to see the correlation between “drop out” behaviour and their perception of academic success. They could not see the value of life–long learning and were rather interested in practical training for employability. The following challenges further shaped the perception of the value of the academic component:

  • Teething problems: the learning system was often not functioning. Students on campus could cope with this challenge while it became a huge stumbling block to Pretoria–based learners.
  • Skills mix of learners (IT vs. natural sciences): it was a challenge for IT learners to understand ecology and vice versa. This was addressed through information– and knowledge–sharing sessions but this factor contributed to complexity that the learners battled with.
  • Self–motivated learning: most of the academic component of the programme required self–learning, which was initially a big challenge to the learners. Only those who remained in the programme for at least 18 months understood this concept.
  • Communication technology: information shared between learners and learnership coordinators was mostly communicated via e–mail. This frustrated learners, especially when they did not receive response immediately.
  • Administrative issues: distance learning was also new for the administratiive section at the University and therefore the administration was not as efficient as one would have expected. Understandably the University was undergoing some changes at the time, but the learners found the long process to correct minor administrative errors very frustrating.
  • Registering the programme as a learnership: although attempts were made the programme was never formally registered as a learnership. The Sectoral Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) are set up as silo institutions and could not fit a multi–discipline learnership into the framework. It also did not help that the CSIR and the University belonged in different SETAs.

 

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8. Conclusion

Initiatives to address the shortage of science and technology skills in South Africa are essential. It is essential that DST and other funding organisations should continuously find and establish projects that aim at science and technology capacity development. Obviously such projects need to be implemented at all levels of skills development. We believe that the many lessons that were learnt during this initiative could form the basis for any future higher level learnership programme. End of article

 

About the authors

Mr. Rudzani A. Makhado was a NISL: EI learner, and presently is coordinating national forestry research at the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, South Africa. His e–mail addresses are makhador [at] dwaf [dot] gov [dot] za or makhado2002 [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Dr. Martie J. Van Deventer was the manager of NISL: EI programme and also information manager at the Council for the Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa. Her e–mail address is mvandeve [at] csir [dot] co [dot] za.

Dr. Laurie Barwell was the manager of NISL: EI programme and also a manager at the Council for the Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa. His e–mail address is lbarwell [at] csir [dot] co [dot] za.

Mrs. Althea M.L. Adey is the retired NISL mentor. Her e–mail address is altheaadey [at] mweb [dot] co [dot] za.

Dr. R. Knight was the NISL: EI programme coordinator and also a senior lecturer at the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, University of the Western Cape. His e–mail address is rknight [at] uwc [dot] ac [dot] za.

Mrs. Jansie Niehaus was the manager of the NISL: EI on behalves of the DST. She is the executive director at the National Science and Technology Forum, South Africa. Her e–mail address is jniehaus [at] nstf [dot] org [dot] za.

 

Acknowledgements

Mr. Avinash Chuntharpursat (SAEON); Dr. Mike Peel (ARC); Mr. Axel Diefenbach and Ms. Noloyiso Madinga (DWAF); Ms. Judith Kruger (SANParks); Mr. Jerry Madiba (DST); and Zoleka Mfono (CSIR) are acknowledged for their contribution in the development of the intended learnership. DST is thanked for funding the programme. The learners: Rudzani Makhado, Collen Rapolai, Nomsa Nkosi, Themba Mashiane, Kholofelo Makau, Ramsely Sono, Thabo Masupa, Esther Montshonyane, Thotyelwa Mcongwane and Moeketsi Finger are acknowledged for being the pioneers of this programme.

 

References

J. Chataway, J. Smith, and D. Wield, 2005. “Partnerships for building science and technology capacity in Africa: Canadian and U.K. experience,” paper prepared for the Africa–Canada–U.K. exploration: Building science and technology capacity with African partners, 30 January–1 February, Canada House, London, U.K.; also at http://www.nepadst.org/doclibrary/pdfs/doc20_012005.pdf, accessed 20 June 2009.

A. Gauci, 2001. “Reforms in higher education and the use of information technology,” Issues in Higher Education, Economic Growth, and Information Technology, Ad hoc Expert Group Meeting, 19–21 November, Nairobi, Kenya.

T. Rosswal, G. Ogunmola, F. Gudyanga, and K. Mokhele, 2004. “Re–building Africa — Science and technology interventions for sustainable development,” submission by the International Council for Science (ICSU) to the Commission for Africa, Paris; at http://www.icsu-africa.org/Resource_centre/Submission_Commission_Africa.pdf, accessed 20 June 2009.

W.S. Saint, 1992. “Universities in Africa: Strategies for stabilization and revitalization,” World Bank Technical Paper, number 194, Africa Technical Department Series. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

A. Salam, 1991. “Notes on science, technology and science education in the development of the south,” Minerva, volume 29, number 1, pp. 90–108.http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01096299

M.J. Van Deventer and J. Niehaus, 2004. “Ecological informatics learnership briefing document for SETAs,” unpublished. Pretoria: CSIR.

R. Watson, M. Crawford, and S. Farley, 2003. “Strategic approaches to science and technology in development,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, number 3026. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

 


Editorial history

Paper received 15 May 2009; accepted 20 June 2009.


Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Copyright © 2009, R.A. Makhado, M.J. van Deventer, L. Barwell, A.M.L. Adey, R. Knight and J. Niehaus.

Capacity building in ecological informatics: Lessons from the DST/CSIR learnership programme in South Africa
by R.A. Makhado, M.J. van Deventer, L. Barwell, A.M.L. Adey, R. Knight and J. Niehaus.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 7 - 6 July 2009
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2523/2241





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