How Saul Nurick uses Blended Teaching at University of Cape Town

We had a conversation with Saul to hear how he uses Blended Teaching at University of Cape Town, and to learn what kind of impact it's had on him and his students.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your teaching?

I'm Saul Nurick, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town, in the Department of Construction Economics and Management.

I predominantly teach on our Property Studies degree (undergraduate and honours) and I'm also the Programme Convenor for the undergraduate and honours degrees in Property Studies. I teach Property Feasibility Analysis, Property Finance, and also the Property and Environment course, which is a qualitative course.

I came across Blended Teaching as part of our re-curricularisation, which we phased in from 2020. In the previous curriculum, we had a very old-school Information Systems course, which was about three-quarters Excel and one-quarter databases. We felt it was no longer relevant to the curriculum, as students enter the programme from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. We have students coming from very privileged schools and others from poorly resourced schools, and the result is that we have a high proportion of students who lack the Excel skills for financial modeling within the real estate space. 

We decided to replace that course with a pure computer science course (which is heavily focused on programming). Due to the re-curricularisation of the courses that I currently teach, there was not the sufficient capacity to teach the content and to simultaneously teach the corresponding automation skills. 

The way I teach is by starting with first principles, and then we move on to using a financial calculator, and then students complete a project using Excel. The reason for taking this approach is that I do not want to throw them straight into the deep end with Excel because I fear that they will not have sufficient foundational knowledge of financial mathematics within the context of real estate to be able to apply the financial tools and Excel skills sufficiently. 

I always say to the students, ‘You have to earn the right to automate!’ 

2. How did you come to start using Blended Teaching?

Last year we piloted Blended Teaching with a cohort of students across their 2nd and 3rd years. The previous curriculum was about 20 years old, and it just by coincidence that we started phasing it in 2020, when Covid hit. We had students in parallel programs, and I started teaching the new Property Investment and Finance II course for the first time in 2022.

I noticed major gaps in their ability to put together a spreadsheet. It shocked and surprised me simultaneously because I was told that kids out of school coming into University had basic Excel skills. We needed to find a remedy fast because property finance, Valuation, DCF, and development cashflows are the bread and butter for a real estate professional. Our four-year degree is accredited by the RICS, and they expect our graduates to meet certain competencies to start their APCs, and to eventually become chartered surveyors. 

3. How is Blended teaching used at UCT?

We use Blended Teaching in parallel within the course. We work through course content; I tell them exactly what they need to know, and what they need to be able to do, we go through exercises, and students take a final assessment. I don't use Blended Teaching directly with them in class. Instead, we have theoretical lectures where we go through worked examples, and students then work through materials in Blended Teaching in their own time.

I make it clear to students up front that in order for them to do well in their final assessment, they need to go through the material in Blended Teaching, and that if they don’t, they’re going to come up short.

There’s far too much material for them to complete it in one go, so I make sure they know that they need to work on it consistently.

There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that I do to identify alumni or senior professionals who can contribute to the course. That takes a little bit of administrative work from our slide, but Phil is excellent because as soon as someone agrees to participate in making a video for the course, Phil takes over, and organises a time for us to shoot a video over Zoom.

It has run very efficiently, and the students see the value. Over the course of the semester, students have a set of resources to work through sequentially. They get access about a month in, once they've got some foundational knowledge, and then the onus is on them to engage with the content. I shouldn't have to hold students’ hands, and based on the data we saw the other day, we see a strong correlation between how well students do, and how much time they spend in Blended Teaching.

4. If you didn't have the use of Blended Teaching for the courses, what impact would it have?

I could take a Hardline approach: ‘You’re University students. If you don't know what to do in Excel, Google it & figure it out.’ That said, I don't know if I would sleep very well if I took that approach.

The lecture material and the content of the course would not be restructured, as I have to cover the fundamentals covered in our handbooks, but how I choose to deliver the course may change. I might have to organise extra tutorials in the labs in order to teach and test those skills. To feel more comfortable with that, I might have to increase my consulting hours. 

5. What have been the biggest benefits from using blended Teaching and conversely, what have been the challenges?

Let's start with the advantages. We started using Blended Teaching with a second-year cohort. When they presented, I could tell immediately that there was a baseline of confidence that they could put something together in Excel. I saw that confidence continue in third year because they were familiar with the Blended Teaching resources. That was a big advantage, as they were all submitting something that meets a minimum benchmark.

6. Are there any recommendations that you have for other Educators who are using Blended teaching?

I think that using industry people in your assignments is a massive value add. I am going to give a very South African example, though I think you can apply it in many other regions.

Due to the legacies of apartheid, the average real estate student from the year 2000 to 2015 was predominantly white and male, because they came from a relatively affluent background where real estate was something that was discussed as an asset class privately. What I have noticed in the last five years is that the demographic of the real estate class has shifted significantly. It is far more reflective of the population.

If you have a graduate who is, for example, black and female, and therefore represents a previously underrepresented community in the real estate space, incorporating their work and experiences into assignments creates a sense of inspiration for students, and makes what they have done feel more attainable.

7. A final question, which is a hot topic at the moment. Is AI impacting the way you teach?

Artificial intelligence is making us change the way we think about assessment. In the finance & quantitative type courses we assess students in groups. Each group gets 20 minutes to present their spreadsheet to me on a large screen. They walk me through their logic and if I have got questions I will pause to check that certain financial concepts have been implemented correctly. Students cannot use artificial intelligence in that environment. They really have to know what they are talking about. 

The other reason for making students present is that it is such a vital skill for our graduates, who, at the age of 25-26, will have to walk into a boardroom where there is the CEO and their entire management team, and have to present a set of results. It is an incredibly important skill even for someone who just wants to be an analyst and sit behind a screen.

I start making students present in second year, and they are atrocious! Then, they start to get better by their third year, and then they do lots of presenting in their 4th year. The average student exits the BSc(Hons) Property Studies degree with presentation skills that are deemed mid to high. Furthermore students have obtained the confidence to convey their knowledge in a pressurised environment.