In the perspective of teaching and learning at CPUT, students and academics seem to agree that the institution has a clear sense of where it wants to take its students especially in terms of written communication and “oral proficiency development… but how to get there most effectively” remains a quandary (Grove 1999: 817). In this light, the following suggestions provided a platform for the ensuing proposed model:
“The course should develop common conceptual platform for students before focusing on discipline specific themes. They should be more emphasis on analytical and synthesis skills. Students should be taught how to think out of the box. (Lecturer response)”
“I think the course and lectures should give students the opportunity to interact more, debate issues with their peers-express our points of view [sic]. This way it might be less boring. Also the lecturers should introduce some more challenging topics that can get us thinking. (Student response)”
These responses reiterate the fact that Communication courses should include concepts that can stimulate high thinking processes in students. These concepts include critical thinking, creativity and innovative thinking, problem solving as well as academic literacies. The development of these skills is “vital to the professional and personal success of all students” (Li, Long & Simpson 1999: 45).
THE PROPOSED MODEL FOR COMMUNICATION LECTURERS
Mindful of the changing interests of universities and existing Communication curricula as well as teaching strategies at CPUT, this model hopes to address specific challenges bedeviling CPUT. For example, the university’s cohort of student is an eccentric mix with disparate socioeconomic backgrounds, learning styles and interests, exemplifying the complex educational landscape of South Africa (Pineteh, 2012). Majority of CPUT students come from dysfunctional high schools which have failed dismally to prepare them for higher education. Many of these students are often not psychological prepared to confront the demands and stresses that come with university studies. Also, their language and communication skills as well as social skills are often unnerving. All these challenges have visible implications for the way CPUT students socialise into university culture and also for the way they interrogate academic discourses in undergraduate assessments and postgraduate research projects. They also affect their understanding of global trends and the pressures these trends are exerting on the South African workplace (Ivanic et al, 2007; Ensor, 2004; Kress, 2000; Winch & Wells 1995). In this light, Communication courses in a university of technology like CPUT are very essential because they provide an uncharacteristic space for students to develop a cross-section of critical skills that they cannot acquire from specialised courses.
This article proposes a framework with space for students to develop their cognitive skills alongside other relevant professional skills right from first year of university. This involves developing Communication contents along two interrelated strands. The first strand concentrates on developing students holistically through academic literacies, critical thinking, problem solving and innovation and creativity. The second strand focuses on the development of technical skills and discipline specific writing skills such as teamwork, conflict management as well as business correspondence and other cognate topics. Existing curricula already address key professional skills but they do not adequately focus on concepts that can develop students cognitively.
This model is potentially useful in that it provides students with a stronger foundation which can help them to approach academic discourses and discipline specific task in a more heuristic way. For example, existing curricula address academic literacy simplistically as reading, listening and writing. In this model we move drastically away from literacy to literacies positioning the debate within the context of New Literacy Studies (Lea & Street, 1998; Kress, 2000; Street, 2004). This means that Communication lecturers in a university like CPUT should deconstruct academic reading and writing not as “a set of skills or simply a means to academic socialization” (Street 2004: 9). Instead they should recognise writing at higher education level as a literacy practice which “leads to cognitive prowess and/or political emancipation” (Luke 1991: 142). Shifting from literacy to literacies implies that reading and writing in higher institutions of learning is a social practice and/or a mode of representing social meanings, ideologies and identities (Fairclough, 1993; Van Dijk, 1993; Geisler, 1994 Street, 1995; Ivanic, 1998). Assignments should also provide space for students to think heuristically, drawing on myriad personal experiences, interrogating broader sociopolitical issues and negotiating their individual identities as human being instead of simply testing their understanding discipline specific concepts. This approach is likely to influence the way South African students imagine and reconstruct post-apartheid
South Africa in a global setting. It can also help students to interpret academic texts from different perspectives and bring them to bear on their academic development within specialised disciplines.
For student to understand and embrace academic literacies as social practices or as mediums for cognitive prowess and emancipation, they require critical and logical thinking skills. This model therefore consider critical thinking “as a crucial aspect of the competence [students] need to participate in a plural and democratic society” like South Africa (Dam & Volman 2004: 360). The democratic transformation of a country like South Africa depends on its students. As scholars within a political space, they are ordained with the role of intellectually reshaping the direction of the country. For this to come to fruition, they should be able to think and make sound judgments, take informed decisions and reason logically. It also means being intellectually autonomous but yet humble to consider disparate view points and able to concede if there is a contrary position premised on sound evidence (Rogers et al, 2005).
Although critical thinking is a meta-cognitive skill and often very challenging to teach, the global market which I suppose we are preparing our students for, requires more than just “high level knowledge and skills” (Ruppert 2010: 1). For our students to be at a competitive edge, they should be able think critically, innovatively and creatively as well as solve problems across different spectrums. Interestingly, the vision of CPUT is to be at the core of technology and innovation in Africa and for this vision to be realised, university curricula should address these concepts from the outset. This will enable students to approach and interrogate knowledge in a more imaginative way. Furthermore, South Africa students face problems not only at the university but also in their social environments. At the university, they are confronted with several academic projects and out of the university they encounter competing socioeconomic challenges. Their success in any academic environment and in any workplace in South Africa is also contingent on their ability to solve their social problem imaginatively. Essentially, students should be able to “harness intellectual and social capital- and to convert that into novel and appropriate things” (Serrat 2009: 1). This proposed model also encourages the introduction of innovative and creative thinking as well as problem solving concepts in the course contents. Although some core programmes like IT and Engineering teach these skills, combining them with critical thinking and academic literacies in one course like Communication can produce more viable outcomes especially because these concepts are closely interrelated.