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Teaching Physical Sciences Online: Myth or Reality?

In the backdrop of the global COVID-19 (C19) pandemic and the resultant rapid adoption of digital solutions in many facets of life, many questions have emerged within the higher education landscape, particularly in low-income countries (LICs). Chief among these questions is whether online teaching and learning is a viable solution as traditional modes have become increasingly limited due to physical restrictions brought about by C19. This question is more critical with regards to teaching and learning in disciplines such as the physical sciences. For this reason, the Zimbabwe Council of Higher Education (ZIMCHE), under the auspices of its Health and Life Sciences Directorate, hosted a webinar on the 9th of June 2022 titled ‘Best Practices of Online Learning with a Focus on Teaching Physical Sciences’.

The webinar, which was part of an ongoing webinar series being organised by the ZIMCHE, drew participants from both the local and global higher education sectors to share experiences and discuss some of the challenges of online learning in the physical sciences. Participants explored the future of blended teaching and learning in the Zimbabwean context, especially in the physical sciences and exchanged notes on best practices, drawing from their varied experiences both locally and internationally.

In his presentation, the ZIMCHE Chief Executive Officer, Professor Kuzvinetsa P. Dzvimbo, said there was an urgent need for local academics and institutions of higher learning to reimagine and rethink issues of curriculum design and pedagogical approaches.

‘Right now, we are being asked to reimagine and rethink the way we design our curriculum and our pedagogical plans, and even the way we teach, assess and examine students’, said Prof. Dzvimbo.

The CEO highlighted the need to establish virtual communities of practice made up of academics and students. He further noted that in the context of C19, higher education institutions (HEIs) must transition from the more traditional teaching and learning methods to online modes using available ICTs.

‘COVID-19 had a negative impact on the smooth flow of traditional teaching and learning methods in our country and institutions. We must now be very innovative and disruptive by moving on to the utilisation of the affordances of ICTs in teaching and learning, and in how we assess and examine our students online and virtually,’ he said.

Webinar keynote speakers included Prof. Kevin Pitts, Seneca College, Toronto, Canada; Prof. Tukayi Kudanga, Durban University of Technology, South Africa; Prof. Emmanuel Mashonjowa, University of Zimbabwe; Dr Phuthi, National University of Science and Technology and Mr Shakemore Chinofunga, Chinhoyi University of Technology.

Presentations by the keynote speakers focused on critical aspects such as online learning management systems (LMS); teaching mathematics online; practitioner experiences on e-learning adoption, support and adaptation for STEM learning environments; the use of simulations in virtual and remote laboratories to enhance teaching and learning in the large science classes; and technology enhanced learning in the physical sciences with a focus on online assessments.

Among those who participated in the webinar were Professor Idah Sithole-Niang, an award-winning Biochemist and ZIMCHE Council Member, and Professor Felicity Gumbo, the Health and Life Sciences Chief Director at the ZIMCHE, as well as several other seasoned physical sciences academics and higher education administrators from various HEIs.