“The eZone breaks the barriers of digital apartheid in South Africa, as students have equal access to devices and high-speed Wifi.” – Paula Barnard-Ashton, South Africa

Paula Barnard-Ashton
Lecturer and Manager of eFundanathi – Learn with Us
University of Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, South Africa

Sometimes, where and how students learn can be just as important as what they learn – especially when it comes to creating 21st century learning environments for higher education. For MIE Expert Paula Barnard-Ashton, who trains lecturers in the therapeutic sciences and education to use technology for blended learning, the “where” and “how” are paramount.

Our team recognized that computing spaces in higher education are confined to fixed desk, row-by-row computing,” she explains. “It took six years to raise the funds and find the location to create the eZone, which was officially opened in September 2017 as a technology rich, flexible, active learning space that uses mobile technologies for collaboration and content creation.”

So how does this new learning space work? Lecturers lead classes in the eZone using technology, rather than standing at the front of room delivering lectures. Students are fully engaged in the learning process and can work in the eZone when it isn’t booked.

“The eZone breaks the barriers of digital apartheid in South Africa as students have equal access to devices and high-speed Wifi,” says Barnard-Ashton. “One outcome of this [success] is the decision by the university’s senior executive team to develop four additional eZones across the university campuses.”

Barnard-Ashton became passionate about physical learning spaces after visiting the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL), where the curriculum is designed around the student’s interests and passions, and the environment supports 21st century learning design.

“The experience made me think about all the fixed desk environments (lecture theatres, computer laboratories) within our higher education space, and how they obstruct collaboration,” she explains. “With this I saw the need to go mobile with technology so that students have freedom to move around and change who they are engaging with in the physical and online space. In South Africa we have very high data costs, so ensuring that there is high-speed broadband Wi-Fi to the learning environment [is key].”

Using technology to address some of the systemic education challenges in South Africa is a big part of Barnard-Ashton’s mission. They are using Skype in the Classroom, for example, to bring the hospital into class so that students can interact with patients and other clinicians in the real world. And the Physiotherapy department is using Teams and the Staff OneNote to manage the increasing load of student administration data, record student support interviews and interventions, plan curricula adjustments, and make sure that all lecturers are informed.

“‘Massification’ is a mandate for transformation in the post-Apartheid South Africa,” she tells us. “The government is mandating that universities accept higher numbers of students – particularly from ‘previously disadvantaged’ backgrounds, without expanding resources. The eZone provides the space and the mobile technology for students to engage with their learning activities so that no student is left behind.”

Connect with Paula through her Microsoft Educator Community Profile.

About Paula Barnard-Ashton

  • Educational background: BSc and MSc (occupational therapy) from the University of the Witwatersrand
  • Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: Definitely Sway!
  • Website I check every day: Twitter, Facebook and the Microsoft Educator Community.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Taking the overnight train with my grandmother and brother from Johannesburg, to Cape Town and then on to Port Elizabeth and back to visit my aunts and uncles during our December holidays. Gran would pack sweetcorn fritters and lots of treats for us to snack on and then eating dinner in the dining car was our main treat. I did a similar journey with my children three years ago just so that they could have a similar experience.
  • Favorite book: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Never let a nay-sayer stand in your way!
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