Professor Guegium Kana has been awarded a Distinguished Teachers’ Award for 2017 in recognition of his innovative teaching methods and harnessing of information technology.

‘This prestigious award from an institution of UKZN’s ranking comes with great honour, and high expectations to further improve teaching and impact the community,’ said Kana, of the School of Life Sciences.

Kana joined UKZN in 2010 and specialises in microbial bioprocesses. At the interface of life sciences and engineering, bioprocesses utilise the unique capabilities of micro-organisms to produce economically valuable products. He is passionate about this field, and seeks to inspire the same passion in his students.

The inter-disciplinary nature of his subject provides a unique challenge in teaching integrated complex biological processes with engineering methods. The diverse learning abilities and non-uniform backgrounds of students present another predicament.

Kana approaches his teaching intentionally, using participatory, imaginative approaches to relate concepts to personal, real-world experiences and stimulate students’ engagement in a two-way interaction. When preparing for lectures, he carefully selects the most appropriate expressions, words, metaphors and analogies to aid understanding. He avoids surface-level methods that do not promote understanding and only enable memorisation and regurgitation of content.

He purposefully collects informal feedback from his students to identify areas needing more attention. His efforts have shown through an on-line survey that 74% of his class of 66 would be prepared to choose a career in bioprocess technology even if it were lower-paying than other options.

In an era where digital and mobile technologies are pervasive and distractive, Kana utilises technological devices and media at students’ disposal to communicate, keep them engaged and sustain their interest.

‘With a myriad of online alternate sources of knowledge, the teacher’s role in the classroom is shifting to a facilitator of learning, rather than an authority on knowledge,’ he said.

Kana said stagnant educational content and outdated teaching methods needed to be revised to encourage lecture attendance and ensure the relevance of educational institutions.

His technologically, up-to-date classroom features several Web 2.0 teaching tools that promote creativity, communication and collaboration. These include an online bioprocess wikiclassroom where students can receive news updates on bioprocess technology and industrial applications, access resources, join discussions and work together on group projects.

Kana recognised that students’ apathy was not apparent unwillingness to learn, but a lack of study skills. He therefore developed an interactive Smart Study Engine online tool that teaches effective study methods and prompts in-depth learning.

He has set up a YouTube channel that features illustration of complex concepts, industrial practices and live experiments from his laboratory. He also uses SMS technology to automate the delivery of bytes of knowledge to some students’ mobile devices.

For postgraduate students, Kana developed an interactive web-based workshop to teach scientific writing through reverse engineering.

Students’ feedback and the support of postgraduate students has been an invaluable source of personal learning. The process of supervision has increased this productive National Research Foundation C-rated researcher’s expertise in diverse fields of biotechnology.

‘One of the key characteristics of a good teacher is to have sufficient knowledge on the topic, and to be able to identify knowledge gaps for further investigation; therefore, a distinguished teacher should ideally be a distinguished researcher.’

Kana said he appreciates the environment at UKZN that fosters creativity and collegiality among staff, and stimulates and motivates research and teaching. He expressed gratitude to colleagues in Life Sciences at UKZN, as well as colleagues at Ladoke Akintola University in Nigeria, for their support and advice.

‘This institution (UKZN) places great emphasis on quality of teaching and research. There are adequate support systems to achieve goals, and the University recognises and rewards merit,’ he said.

He hopes the University will prioritise the establishment of a unit that will identify, assess and promote innovative teaching technologies and develop a dynamic repository for Web 2.0 teaching tools.

Words: Christine Cuénod