South Africa (University of South Africa) In her own words: Unisa’s COL Chair on the university’s international prestige and her new role as a leading ODL scholar

Prof Geesje van den Berg, of the Department of Curriculum and Instructional Studies in the College of Education, has been appointed Commonwealth of Learning Chair.

Prof Geesje van den Berg

Speaking about her appointment, Van den Berg says that she is honoured and humbled by this appointment. “Being selected as the only representative from South Africa among a group of six open distance learning (ODL) scholars from five Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, Cyprus and South Africa, fills me with pride. The Commonwealth of Learning (COL), headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, appoints COL Chairs to lead research, drive innovation and provide thought leadership in key areas such as ODL, technology-enhanced learning (TEL) and open educational resources (OERs). The fact that Unisa currently holds the Chair position in South Africa, aligning closely with COL’s focus areas, makes this appointment even more meaningful to me.”

Positive impact and influence

Dedicated to the cause and growth of ODL, and boasting more than 20 years of service to the University of South Africa (Unisa), Van den Berg has cemented herself as a loyal servant of this august institution that celebrates 150 years of higher education excellence this year. Testament to the positive impact and influence she has been able to generate within Unisa, are the 46 students who have completed their master’s and doctoral studies under her postgraduate supervision. “Among these,” she comments, “16 were colleagues from Unisa, further reinforcing my commitment to advancing ODL practices at the university.”

Further commenting on her appointment as COL Chair, Van den Berg says that she is now connected to several ODL experts across the Commonwealth, which holds opportunities for collaboration on different levels. “I hope to learn from these experts in the field, with the ultimate goal of bringing back valuable insights to Unisa.”

In the company of leading international researchers

In addition to Van den Berg, current COL Chairs (2023 to 2026) are Prof Shironica Karunanayaka, Open University of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka; Dr Mark Nichols, Te Pūkenga – New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology, New Zealand; Prof John Traxler, University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom; Prof Denise Whitelock, Open University, United Kingdom; and Prof Michalinos Zembylas, Open University of Cyprus, Cyprus.

Former COL Chairs include Prof Mpine Makoe, Institute for Open and Distance Learning, Unisa, South Africa; Prof Mohamed Ally, Centre for Distance Education, Athabasca University, Canada; Dr Robin Day, Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand; Prof Tolly Mbwette, Open University of Tanzania, Tanzania; Prof Rory McGreal, Athabasca University, Canada; Prof TV Prabhakar, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India; Prof Vincent Tenebe, National Open University of Nigeria, Nigeria; Prof George Veletsianos, School of Education and Technology, Royal Roads University, Canada; Prof Joel Warrican, Open Campus Barbados, University of the West Indies, Barbados; and Prof Martin Weller, Institute of Educational Technology, Open University, United Kingdom.

The call for COL Chairs is open to experts from universities in Commonwealth member states in COL’s key areas. COL Chairs are appointed for a period of three years.

Her role and what it means to Unisa

On her role and what it means for the university, Van den Berg says that she perceives her role as the COL Chair to strengthen theory and research in ODL at Unisa. Her appointment focuses on ODL for teacher education and will further contribute to knowledge-building and research in ODL in the region, specifically in education.

“Through this appointment,” she says, “I aim to make a meaningful contribution to the growth of ODL knowledge within the region, particularly in Namibia and Eswatini, where we have already established productive working relationships. While the extent of my impact will depend on securing external funding, I am optimistic about the potential to generate positive outcomes for ODL practices and educational advancements in these areas.”

She adds: “As part of my responsibilities, I am dedicated to actively contributing to the knowledge-building and advancement of research as COL Chair. To achieve this, I have outlined a comprehensive plan encompassing various initiatives to disseminate valuable insights and foster intellectual growth.”

Van den Berg explains that another significant aspect of her contribution will be through co-authored research outputs: “Collaborating with esteemed colleagues, experts and students in the field, I aim to publish papers that will contribute to the existing body of knowledge in ODL for teacher education. Additionally, a forthcoming publication of a book is envisaged. This book will serve as a comprehensive resource, consolidating key concepts, best practices and emerging trends in ODL for teacher education. Its publication will provide ODL educators, researchers and practitioners with a valuable reference that encapsulates the field’s current state and offers insights into its future directions. COL will organise a series of international webinars to engage a broader audience and promote global collaboration. Meaningful discussions, ideas and new perspectives on teaching and learning in the digital age will be shared by facilitating these knowledge-sharing platforms.”

COL’s role in higher education institutions and Unisa’s support

“As the COL Chair,” continues Van den Berg, “I depend on the support from Unisa, and the envisaged activities for the next three years will not be possible without this support. I am grateful to the Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation Portfolio, which has already rendered a great deal of support to the Chair.”

According to COL’s website, the Chairs Programme was started in 2010 to facilitate the development of effective ODL and technology-enhanced education and training through advocacy, research and capacity-building across the Commonwealth; to strengthen regional cooperation; and to provide visibility for COL in the field.

COL’s mission is to help Commonwealth member states and institutions to use distance learning and technologies to expand access to education and training. COL’s work is organised in two sectors – Education and Skills – with Gender Equality and Technology-Enabled Learning as cross-cutting initiatives.

COL works with partners to promote technology solutions for learners in developing countries, develops holistic models that lead to livelihoods and empowerment, and creates policies and processes that enhance the capacity of governments and institutions.

A journey of commitment and excellence

Van den Berg’s career at Unisa started in 2002, when she was appointed on a contract to teach in the National Professional Diploma in Education to underqualified teachers. In 2007, she was permanently appointed as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies in the then School of Education.

In 2011, she had the honour of becoming the acting Chair of the Department, and it was during this time that she actively contributed to the establishment of the College of Education in 2012. Following this, she was appointed the inaugural Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instructional Studies, a position she held until 2019.

“Since then,” she says, “my primary focus has been on teaching and research in ODL.” Currently, she serves as the programme coordinator for Unisa’s structured Master’s in Education in ODL programme, where she also teaches two modules. Furthermore, she supervises several local and international ODL master’s and doctoral students.

Her area of expertise is in academic capacity-building in ODL. In 2012, Unisa recognised the growing need for online teaching training and, as a result, established a collaboration with the former University of Maryland University College in the United States to develop a Certificate in Online Teaching. This collaboration became one of Unisa’s strategic projects, and Van den Berg was invited to lead it, marking the beginning of her career in ODL teaching, learning and research.

The certificate modules were specifically designed to feed into Unisa’s MEd in ODL programme. Because of the collaboration, she was awarded a Unisa ODL research support grant from 2016 to 2018, which led to various outputs and postgraduate studies in the field of ODL. In 2018, this collaboration was transitioned to the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany.

“Since the start of the collaboration,” comments Van den Berg, “more than 90 colleagues from Unisa have completed the certificate, making significant contributions to research outputs and driving innovation in online teaching and learning practices. Recognising the significance of this project to Unisa, I have always considered it a vital aspect of my work and research. ODL has emerged as one of the most rapidly expanding educational formats. It represents a shift from traditional classroom settings, allowing students and instructors to be geographically separated. Previously regarded as an unconventional and marginalised approach due to perceived shortcomings in theoretical foundations and non-traditional delivery systems, ODL has now become an indispensable concept in mainstream education. Notions such as connected learning spaces and virtual learning environments have enlarged the scope and changed the nature of earlier (correspondence) distance education models. These advancements have played a crucial role in shaping my career in ODL, continuously informing my research and practice.”

Van den Berg believes that a fundamental aspect of online teaching and learning is providing students with ample opportunities for interaction. “This,” she says, “enables them to remain connected, develop their knowledge and achieve success within specific contexts. Understanding how to facilitate such interaction and create an engaging learning environment will remain a central focus in my research as  COL Chair.”

Outstanding collaborations

In 2022, she received an external grant dedicated to developing an open educational resource (OER) within the field of ODL. She comments: “To ensure a comprehensive and collaborative approach, I actively engaged a Unisa colleague and six MEd in ODL students from various local and international higher education institutions as co-developers. This collective effort resulted in the successful creation of the resource and research output. Throughout my career, my commitment to ODL teaching and research has led to the publication of numerous articles and book chapters. Many of these publications have been accomplished in collaboration with colleagues and students. I firmly believe in empowering and mentoring others to strengthen and enhance Unisa’s standing as an esteemed ODL institution.”

She recently participated in a podcast episode hosted by Dr Mark Nicols in alignment with her work and passion for online learning. He is the Executive Director of Learning Design and Development at the Open Polytechnic in New Zealand, a distinguished figure in online learning and a Commonwealth Co-Chair. “This engaging discussion on my career in online teaching took place as part of his esteemed podcast series, Leaders and Legends of Online Learning,” she says,

Click here to listen to the podcast.

In conclusion, Van den Berg says she feels privileged to be appointed COL Chair on Unisa’s 150th anniversary. “I hope this appointment will contribute to the university’s achievements on its birthday and contribute to the celebrations. Lastly, I hope to make Unisa proud as the COL Chair on ODL for Teacher Education during the next three years.”