World-renowned subject-matter experts and knowledge creators in the field of experiential education and social justice recently participated in the 2020 Stellenbosch University Experiential Education Conference.
The virtual conference, themed Experiential Education as Pedagogy for Social Justice: praxis and practice for shaping 21st century global citizen-leaders, explored emerging trends and transitions in the higher education experiential education domain and the intersections thereof with social justice and the formation of the global citizen-leader. Held over two days, from 10–11 November, the conference offered participants access to master classes, keynote addresses and academic paper presentations.
In his opening address, Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU, said he found the theme of the conference most apt.
“The first part asks us to view experiential education as a pedagogy for social justice. This emphasis is highly relevant in light of the Coronavirus pandemic which has sharply exposed societal fault lines all over the world.
“The second part of the theme calls attention to our role as educators in shaping 21st century global citizen leaders. This resonates with our stance here at SU. We do not just want to deliver graduates who are sought after in the workplace; we also aim to deliver engaged citizens and responsible leaders who are willing to use their expertise to serve society.
“We aspire to have a positive impact on the well-being of our town, region, country and continent with a global reach. And to do that, we do not only seek to influence and change the world around us but also ourselves. Experiential education is the key to this."
The keynote address was presented by SU Academics Dr Choice Makhetha, senior director: Division Student Affairs and Prof Thuli Madonsela, Social Justice Chair and Law Trust Chair in Social Justice. Their talk was entitled Emerging Social Justice Frameworks in Higher Education.
According to Makhetha the #Feesmustfall Movement in 2015/16 brought many social justice issues to the surface and students demanded that they be addressed with great urgency. Some of these issues include:
Gender-based violence (GBV): Students took it upon themselves to ensure that GBV was taken seriously and plans were put into place to address these challenges. The value is in how the process unfolded and real experiential learning happened.
The missing middle: They are students who are considered “not poor enough and not rich enough" to be supported financially through government funding. The discussions started with the Department of Higher Education and Training in 2016. Debates continued at Universities South Africa (USAf) and also at individual universities to try and come up with a solution.
Institutional culture: Institutional culture is shaped and influenced by practices within the institution, including subtle patterns that form through habit and end up accepted as part of the institution's culture. This can be destructive and detrimental to the envisaged positive transformative student experience.
Decolonisation and curriculum transformation: #Feesmustfall and other movements reignited a focus on decolonisation in general, and particularly curriculum transformation.
Mental health and substance abuse: Students recognised the level of pressures on their lives, including socioeconomic and academic matters, and they raised the concern with regard to the level of psychosocial support available within the higher education sector.
Said Makhetha, “It is amazing how students can actually change society when they are intentional and courageous enough to drive change. We in higher education have seen how young people challenge institutions to make a change in different ways."
She believes that for any learning to last and be engrained in one's system, the teaching has to be by “walking the talk", especially beyond the classroom where involvement of students is voluntary.
“Experiential education is a powerful tool and through it lessons are deeply engrained. It is now very clear that it's important to lead and teach by example, while learning from experiences," Makhetha said.
Madonsela said she has an issue with the kind of experiential learning that students experienced through video games, such as Warcraft, where they become conditioned to fight injustice wherever they see it.
“The problem with this kind of experiential learning is that it gives them a skewed perception of justice, where everything goes and where whatever gets destroyed in the process is just collateral damage, “ she said.