Perceptions of the impact of digital technology on unbundling in Higher Education

In this blog post, I unpack some of the key themes that have emerged from our first phase of interviews with higher education leaders in South Africa. Having interviewed 26 individuals, a number of common issues have been raised in relation to the impact of digital technology on unbundling (defined as the disaggregation of provision and services) in higher education.  As we explore the data, and continue our analysis, it is useful to reflect and explore these key themes.

Ubiquity of digital technology?

We know that South Africa is a hugely unequal country, and this pervades the higher education system as much as general society. In this regard, we should make a distinction between educational inequalities as shaped by structural factors, and the economics of unequal technological access in higher education. While the former are tied to the historical trajectory of South African higher education, the latter are mainly concerned with unequal patterns of supply and demand of devices, bandwidth and expertise.

A stark picture of structural inequality in the South African HE sector is painted by official data, for instance the fact that between 2007 and 2012 [1], universities increased fees by 8.4% p.a. in real terms. This was a response to strong growth in enrolment (6% p.a.,) coupled with slow growth in government funding (5.4% p.a.), and nearly no growth in so-called “third stream” income (0.2% p.a.), where funds are sought through liaisons with the private sector, knowledge exchange, donations and, increasingly, on-demand online education. NSFAS, the financial aid scheme, is also underfunded (31% of eligible candidates were rejected in 2014) and the eligibility cut-off figure of R122,000 household income left many students unable to cope with the fee increases.

Alongside these patterns of hardening educational inequality, there is also a view of a ‘digital divide’ amongst students within universities. Amongst our interviewees, there is a view of a digital divide amongst students within universities; between those that have Internet-enabled devices, the means to pay for data and the digital literacies to use their devices effectively for learning, and those that do not. Within the group that have devices, there appears to be a large continuum of digital literacy amongst the student population, presumably linked to prior educational experiences, social capital and/or home environment.  Set against this unequal infrastructure and digital literacy context, interviewees also raised concerns about the cost of Internet access and devices, and the reliability of Internet access both on- and off-campus.

Clearly, all of these concerns and limitations potentially impact on a university’s willingness and / or ability to make greater use of digital technology to offer flexible online learning opportunities to students. Interestingly, whilst these issues have been raised in a South African context, they have resonance in many other countries, including in the UK, where inequality also exists within the higher education system, and beyond, and affects individuals’ ability to engage effectively with opportunities provided by digital technology. The question raised by Bass and Eynon in a recent article about unbundling and rebundling comes to mind as we consider these challenges: ‘What is the role of the digital ecosystem in making a quality liberal education available to all, equitably?’ (Bass and Eynon, 2017).

The perceived value of online learning

Alongside issues of student readiness for online learning, interviewees raised questions about faculty willingness to engage in new teaching initiatives involving digital technology. In this context, concern was raised about the ability (and / or willingness) of some faculty members to effectively engage with online learning, due to a lack of digital literacy or understanding of the pedagogical value of technology-enhanced learning.  Interviewees commented on the perceived use of technology-enhanced learning to replace face-to-face learning, which would be a highly unsatisfactory outcome for many faculty members.   Another consistent theme raised during interviews was the impact of technology-enhanced learning initiatives on faculty time; whilst some saw it as a way to increase time available for research, others realised the major time investment necessary to design, develop and deliver online learning, which may not give immediate time-saving returns.   Also, interviewees commented on the lack of robust research evidence available to demonstrate the pedagogic value of technology-enhanced learning to improve student learning outcomes; this was raised as a limitation when trying to encourage faculty to engage with new initiatives.

Again, these themes are likely to be familiar to those working in the higher education sector in South Africa and beyond, and reflect a lack of investment in the ‘softer’ side of change initiatives. Whilst some universities have invested in capital projects to allow technology-enhanced learning initiatives to move forward, investment in the professional development of staff to make most effective use of new technologies is often neglected, or piecemeal, as is the workload allocation required for this activity.  Ultimately, this means the benefits of the capital investment are not realised, and the teaching staff do not adopt new technologies at the pace expected by their universities, or external stakeholders. For students, this has implications for graduate literacies, and also exacerbates the divides between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

 Changing learning spaces

 In relation to the changing nature of learning spaces, interviewees reflected on the impact of a curriculum using blended learning on campus physical spaces, and the need for innovation to accommodate flexible, small-group, technology-enriched learning. Interestingly, interviewees also commented on how virtual learning spaces (e.g. Learning Management Systems) had an increasingly important role, particularly for flexibility for learners, when campus access was restricted or geographically challenging.  In large part, these reflections appeared to be time-dependent, coming in the academic year after several South African university campuses were closed due to protests associated with the Fees Must Fall campaign.

Interviewees also commented on and questioned the value of physical learning spaces and other campus-based physical environments to support a curriculum delivering a holistic educational experience; presumably echoing concerns from the sector about the need to maintain campus-based education for professional development, interaction with researchers, community building and networking: activities which are perceived to be more challenging in online environments. There were also concerns expressed about potential inequities both in and accessing digital spaces.

Finally, interviewees reflected on the growing use of technology-enhanced learning initiatives in learning spaces, including lecture capture. Some interviewees reflected concerns amongst faculty about the potential risks of lecture capture, including copyright infringement and students’ improper use of the recorded content in online environments.

 Each of these themes identified by South African Higher Education leaders will be recognisable in other countries, and reflect current debates about the value of campus-based education versus online learning, and the changing nature and configuration of learning spaces to accommodate changes in the use of digital technology. Overall, these issues relate to the changing demands on the curriculum, in terms of design, delivery, assessment and engagement.  Here, the work of Hall and Smyth provides a useful, and sanguine, view.  Their argument is that curriculum needs to be reimagined by staff and students, to produce a co-operative, engaged, and engaging, experience for all, making use of the full range of resources and experiences available (Hall and Smyth, 2016).


Overall, the themes identified by South African Higher Education leaders about their perceptions of the impact of digital technology on education and universities fall into three major areas: technology, pedagogy and learning spaces. Each of these broad areas is a matter of debate, research and critique globally as digital technology pervades further into the higher education sector and influences traditional thinking, strategy and action.  Whilst the context of South Africa, with deep inequalities in society, is an extreme example of the diverse population of students entering the sector, the issues being encountered by students, faculty and university administrators are similar around the world.

As our research proceeds, we aim to debate these positions in relation to the notion of unbundling and the growing marketization of the sector. In critiquing the interactions of these three elements, we will reflect on the rationale behind the decisions universities are taking to embark on partnerships with private companies to establish online education businesses or further their online education offerings.



Bass, R., & Eynon, B. (2017) From unbundling to rebundling: Design principles for transforming institutions In the new digital ecosystem. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 49:2, 8-17

Hall, R & Smyth, K. (2016) Dismantling the curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1): e11, p1-28.