Theatre to strengthen ICT learning, Tunisia: Winner of Innovative Teaching and Learning Award 2022


Theatre plays to grasp Big data

Computer science engineer Dr. Hedia Mhiri Sellami is clear about the challenge facing teachers at Tunisia University, and that is how to best engage students.

“There is a problem at our university, and I think at all universities, which is that students are not motivated to attend, and even those who do attend find it difficult to concentrate. This is partly because of Smart phones, partly because they go to bed and wake up late, and partly because they say it is easier to watch the lectures on Youtube.”

But Sellami is a highly-driven teacher who clearly likes a challenge, and so in the academic year 2020/21 she decided to find a way to enthuse her master’s in human resources’ students to help them study and assimilate the Information and Communication Technology [ICT] material they needed. “I asked them directly if they would like to be assessed via a theatre play and they responded positively,” she says with a smile. “So, I proposed that they imagine themselves joining a company, and have to convince their new boss that models from my course are worth adopting to improve the organization.”

Specifically, in groups of three, they had to write a theatre play related to the module being taught. They were also told that 40% of the marks would be for their script and 60% for their performance. “At that time, because of Covid, they had to present their plays online,” she says.

Highly enthusiastic responses to Sellami’s end-of-term questionnaire led her to repeat the exercise on an “Introduction to Data science and Big data” module the following year with two groups: a master’s module, which had 28 students, and an undergraduate group, with 100.

Except this time Sellami decided to ask her students to post their presentations on the university platform and act out their roles in French. “I asked for it in French because the new generation tend to use English, as they see it as the future,” she says. “But it was the common language of business and administration during French rule, and it would be a pity to lose it.”

One of the advantages of this innovative approach to teaching is that it requires nothing more than some tables and chairs. However, that didn’t stop students adding a few theatrical flourishes. “Some presented flyers from ‘their company’ and others dressed in a suit and bow tie; while another group proposed green initiatives as well,” she says.

In the third group, which was the third year of an undergraduate ‘Introducing Cloud Computing course’, Sellami had many students, so she asked them to form groups of three. “That took a lot of time to see all the presentations, and even though I asked them to do it in French, a few groups did it in English anyway!” she says.

“But the results of the questionnaire showed that 70% better assimilated the course content, 100% said that it was beneficial, and the majority said it should be repeated in future years. The feedback showed that the majority were also much more comfortable writing in French. The clear message was ‘Please repeat it!’”, she says.

Singing for Learning

Sellami is also pioneering an initiative based on a traditional French song known as Salam. “My students have been asked to present a story about Data science in the form of a song,” she says. “I will see their presentations at the end of October.”

Both the theatre play and songwriting approach can be used by teachers in any course. “It does take a little more effort but, nonetheless, many of my colleagues are enthusiastic about it,” she says. “I plan to publish the results in an academic journal.”

Personal development

Sellami is currently learning how to play piano and has joined a choir, and is soon planning to enroll on a theatre course. “I may present a one-woman show on how to make science more accessible to ordinary people,” she says. “I have also had some famous Tunisian actors offer to give lectures to my classes, which has motived both my students and me. I am always fascinated to keep learning.”

Incredibly, Sellami only entered the teaching profession because she was bored of working in a traditional company structure. “Many of my ex-colleagues now have high and well-paid positions in banks, but they always say to me ‘Hedia, you did the right thing!’ And I believe I did: I feel free.”

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