BEST TEACHER: Romana Challans

Romana Challans is one of the hidden gems within Flinders University. Both a member of teaching staff within the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics and current student of the uni, she was voted by ET readers as one of the best teachers our university has to offer. Jess Nicole sat down with Romana in her quaint, brightly decorated office to get an insight into the world of this dedicated, fun-loving and down to earth academic.

Romana Challans is the Associate Lecturer for the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics based at the Tonsley campus and has been working here for over four years. Just prior to commencing her role, she worked alongside an old uni friend, Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, on a research project called The Serval Project, a humanitarian endeavour focusing on making mobile telecommunications available within remote and rural communities.

Two years in, Romana was approached by Professor John Roddick (Dean of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics) who offered her a teaching role within the university. Flinders University was not unfamiliar territory for Romana, however, as she had studied here 20 years ago—originally doing Philosophy and English but then transferring into IT. Oddly enough, she says, Philosophy and English were ‘great lead ins’, especially the former. She says that critical thinking and ethics is important in IT and she tries to teach her students the necessary role they play when using technology. During her uni years, Romana co-founded a not-for-profit organisation that is still running called ITShare SA. It involves collecting, recycling, refurbishing and donating unwanted hardware from industries and individuals so that low-income individuals in the community can have access to computing. ‘We have a great digital divide’ Romana articulates, where ‘people don’t always have as much money to get what they need…why put [hardware] in landfill when other people can use it?’. She was involved in this organisation for 11 years.

Following her studies she worked at the software centre Motorola, training software engineers for three years. Romana also reflects on her previous role as a Psychology Practice Manager which she says she ‘kind of fell into while updating [a friend’s] computer system as a favour.’ Romana worked in freelance web development and systems development, which she describes as ‘great fun’, but something that was growing and she ‘didn’t want to do any more growth’. ‘I didn’t want to manage people in that way, I didn’t want to have a business as such.’ During this time, Romana explains that some problems had arose as part of her disability so when Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen asked her to return to Flinders for The Serval Project, she thought ‘go play at the uni? That sounds like fun.’ So she did.

Romana is also a student here at Flinders University, currently wrapping up her Honours in IT. Her thesis focused on developing a social media tool that could train users how to use social media in a way that doesn’t get them in trouble. This is what is called ‘machine learning’. In teaching social networks and security, Romana is aware of the problems that can arise from using social media and a lot of the time these problems are due to ‘ignorance in how these things are used.’ She notes that people forget the huge element of permanency surrounding social networks and that these networks own any data that is uploaded by its users. In understanding these risks, Romana says people can avoid losing their jobs or costing their companies business.

When speaking with Romana, it is evident her students are offered a range of exciting opportunities. Last semester, Romana taught a new topic surrounding cyber security, which involved teams battling it out through hacking each other’s computer systems. Romana aims to teach her students the way she wanted to be taught. She says she doesn’t believe in ‘lectures as lectures’; ‘if you drone on to your students—I’ve done it a few times—and I hated it and they hated it.’ Allowing for different learning styles is key to reaching students individually, Romana explains. She caters to audio and visually inclined students as well as those who learn through thinking and talking about how things work. Ruthless in her endeavour to promote participation and include all students and their learning preferences, Romana jokes that she ‘will do it in mime if [she] has to.’

Romana wants the best for her students and so it comes as no surprise that one of the most difficult parts of her job is when a student cheats. She says the ‘worst one is accidental plagiarism where one has copied another and you can’t discern who copied who. So you know somebody’s innocent.’ Seeing a student waste all their efforts and throwing it away for something like cheating is ‘so disappointing’ Romana says gravely. ‘We don’t want to lose any students. We want them to do well.’ She explains that the teaching staff tend to pick up on any issues and try to reach out to students needing help however every now and then ‘you lose account of one or two people because they’re lazy or just under a lot of pressure.’ Romana makes a point of saying that you can’t pre-judge, and that students cheat for a number of reasons so it’s about keeping an open mind and seeing if there’s a way out. However, in the end, Romana states that ‘there are guidelines and we will abide by [them]’. As such, Romana wishes that students knew that her door is always open and that she is approachable. ‘I’m here to talk to…when I say my door is open, physically sometimes it’s closed, but it’s not.’ She says it’s important that students come to her if they’re feeling adrift because it opens up a dialogue about the industry, where it’s going and conversations that may ‘trigger something that they’re interested in’ or ‘something that’s not being covered here that they’re really passionate about.’

It’s hard to give Romana a compliment without a modest response and passing the flattery onto other staff as well. In being voted Best Teacher, she says ‘I may have been voted but it’s actually a prize for everybody here. All the admin staff who get everything ready, all the way down to the cleaners who make things looks good, the security guards who keep the equipment safe, the IT guys and my colleagues who give me great advice.’ She says that she has amazing people behind her and that she’s ‘just the bit that [students] see at the lecture’. Another important aspect, Romana notes, is that there is no ‘hierarchical nonsense’ since everybody she works with is dedicated to doing their best for their students and the passion that comes from them is inspiring and makes her ‘want to do better as well.’

Romana’s love of IT and technology is evident throughout our conversation—‘I work in the field of dreams.’ IT is about ‘imagining what could be, and creating it’, Romana says. ‘I don’t know many jobs where you get to work in imagination all day and actually creating it…that’s the most exciting thing for me. We dream it and we build it.’ While IT is mostly a male dominated industry, Romana says ‘I don’t like saying that we should have more women and less men, that’s ridiculous, I think everybody who likes it should do it because it’s great fun…I can’t think of a better topic.’ When asked about her love of technology and technological devices, Romana points to her Apple watch fixed neatly onto her wrist as an example of her ‘treating [herself] as an experiment for the internet of things.’ She elaborates that she wants to know what it’s like to be a person that lives with such devices and how viable they are and the issues that may arise. Given the prevalence of technology nowadays, which Romana says is a ‘wonderful, exciting tool’ that doesn’t necessarily have an ‘evil or good side’, one of her concerns is that we implement technology because we can, without thinking about the consequences or pitfalls.

When asked about her disability, Romana says she is ‘quite happy to demystify the whole disability thing’. Due to a car accident 9 years ago, Romana’s spine is collapsing and is trapping her sciatic nerve, which causes her chronic pain. While she is still able to walk, it is only in small amounts and she saves that for when she is home with her children. Romana openly chats about her condition and says her students’ responses are ‘funny to watch’ at times, because they will watch her legs and say ‘I’m certain her leg moved. I know I saw it!’ She says with a smile that her ‘chariot reclines and zooms all over the uni…students used to beg for rides up the hill’ and in response she would say ‘Yeah, walkers!’ ‘Who’s superior now?’.

Romana is a self-confessed nerd and tea-lover. She says her tea is how she gets people hooked. Sipping a vanilla pod and cinnamon blend , she tells me her real confession is that she’s ‘hopeless with fashion’ but her kids are her fashion gurus.
Romana is a self-confessed nerd and tea-lover. She says her tea is how she gets people hooked. Sipping a vanilla pod and cinnamon blend , she tells me her real confession is that she’s ‘hopeless with fashion’ but her kids are her fashion gurus.

The Tonsley campus itself is incredibly disability friendly with open, flat spaces, an abundance of disability toilets, lifts that open on both sides, alarms for both the hearing and vision impaired, and even a wheelchair chair charging room. ‘I would say this is probably the most disability friendly campus or building possibly in the Southern Hemisphere.’ Romana was part of the design committee for the construction of Tonsley and states that while there wasn’t a specific demand for disability accessibility, the Dean and Faculty showed a clear will to develop ‘something that would accommodate for every type of student’ and that she was ‘blown away by that will to create this place.’ ‘They didn’t see why it should be limited to able-bodied students. If you’ve got a will and a brain and an imagination, you’re welcome,’ says Romana of the Tonsley campus.

One downside, however, is the Flinders University’s loop bus that is offered free of charge to students travelling to and from the Tonsley to Bedford Park campuses. Unfortunately, the loop bus is not disability friendly which comes as a huge inconvenience and means that students and staff who have disabilities must arrange outside transport means to suit their needs. This means that they must travel across South Road, sometimes at night, in the rain and often through busy and dangerous traffic, to get to public transport. Even then, public transport is still unreliable and infrequent so it would be preferable that the loop bus be accessible to those with disabilities, therefore preventing them from facing the daunting process of crossing South Road and providing them with the opportunity to catch multiple, differently routed buses from Bedford Park.

Between studying, working, having a family and kindly fixing students’ laptops, Romana lists the ukulele as a one of her favourite pastimes. She is also trying to learn the mandolin but her ‘fingers hate it’ and it’s been on the back burner while she finishes her honours. On top of musical instruments, Romana takes delight in quilting, knitting, colouring in (a form of meditation for her) and her favourite sci fi show is Babylon Five—‘I will stand by that until my death, or their death, if [someone] argues with me.’ She also appears to be an avid Skyrim fan, citing that she recently found herself being chased by a butterfly in-game and that ‘it attacked me, I don’t care what anyone says, that blue butterfly attacks so you have to watch that sucker…it’s vicious…it will do you.’ When asked about her social life, Romana slowly repeats the words back to me in the form of a question. She says that she’s ‘heard of those things’ and wonders what they’re like but sometimes she thinks she needs ‘to pin a badge on that says Hi, my name is Mum.’ That said, her friends are very patient and she looks forward to exploring her obscure taste in music with them, planning to see the opera in the near future.

If this isn’t enough, Romana excitedly lets onto her desire to continue studying after her honours—‘the funny thing is, I’ve the urge to keep studying! I want to do a Dip Ed and I’m thinking about doing my PhD…God! Learning is exciting!’ In studying, Romana says that her ‘students win’ because the more she learns the more her students do and in understanding the pressures of being a student, it makes her a better and more informed teacher. ‘Studying is something more teachers should do even if they don’t’ need to. It’s really good for students to work with us.’ She elaborates that students can then see their teachers as one them—‘we eat, we get dressed, we have the same weird ideas, hopes and fears and watch the same crappy sci fi shows as most students.’ That said, however, Romana says chuckling that she ‘tends to use more nerd references that most of [her] students.’

Words by Jess Nicole