Report from #Heltasa2017 workshop Unbundling Higher Education, Part II: The influence of Digital Technologies and Curricular Disaggregation on Teaching & Learning Provision

On the 21st-24th of November, Durban University of Technology hosted the annual meeting of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of South Africa (HELTASA). As part of our impact and engagement strategy, three members of our team – Dr Rebecca Swartz (UCT) and Prof Neil Morris and Dr Mariya Ivancheva (University of Leeds) participated in the conference by offering a pre-session workshop “Unbundling Higher Education: Exploring Models in an Unequal Landscape”. The workshop aimed to generate discussion around some key questions of our project that would allow a two-way engagement with participants. This allowed us to offer some insights from our research findings and where our project sees some advancements and challenges happening at the intersection of unbundling, marketisation and digitalization in South African Higher Education. We were also eager to hear from participants and gather data on their perceptions of these processes from the position of their institutions.

This second blog post offers a brief overview of the answers which our participants – mostly academics, academic development and education technology workers from South African universities – offered to the questions of the shifting public private divide in public higher education in the country. In our first blog post we covered topics around the changing nature of the changing nature of public universities through public-private partnerships in teaching and learning provision.

In the second part of the workshop we inquired if and how the introduction and increased role of digital technologies, curricular disaggregation, and marketisation has changed the teaching and learning provision at the participants’ institutions. We asked them to give examples on what are the advantages and challenges to this development especially when it comes to introducing students to online or blended learning and digital technologies and through marketisation. We were also interested to explore participants’ visions of where this change will lead public higher education in South Africa in the next 5-10 years.

Workshop participants saw digital technologies as holding huge potential but not being in widespread use. They insisted that digital technologies would come as a must in any further training, be it within universities or as unbundled provision. They also commented, however, on university staff as resistant to change and not always on board with technological developments.  Faculty were believed to be making limited use of digital technologies, and sometimes had outdated or faulty ideas regarding their use.  At times it was a generational matter in which younger faculty were more tech savvy and open to innovation and use of online platforms and forums to provide content. Alternatively the confidence, competence, and pedagogical skills of teachers was seen as more important than their age. Whatever the case, however, the resistance to adopting technologies was seen by participants quite unanimously as putting students at a disadvantage. This was even more the case for students who lacked digital literacy upon entering university. Those from underprivileged backgrounds could use the entry into universities to get ahead with technology and often e-books and devices were made available to accelerate this process, but this opportunity was lost if staff did not give them a good technological introduction, thus perpetuating their disadvantage. The disconnect between the availability of technological devices and the ability of students and faculty to use them for academic research, teaching and learning, was also named as a central challenge.

The question of access to technologies and data off campus was seen as an important next step to widening access and bridging the digital divide, which most universities were reticent to undertake, investing instead in on campus infrastructure only.

Participants felt that there was greater scope for public universities to question who was using digital technologies, why, to what purpose, and for whose gain. Researching these avenues would also allow them to tackle the broader and more important question if digital provision allowed widening access to higher education.  The focus on the use of technologies for their own sake often meant that universities lost focus on the social aspects of the use of technology and failed to answer adequately who this technology serves. Some participants felt there was an unreflective adoption of ‘best practice’ in digital technology use from the West that was not always applicable in the South African context.

Participants raised questions in relation to time. Some faculty thought that automation of certain admin tasks would open more free time for teaching, but reported this was not what was happening in their practice. They insisted there was a need to demonstrate the value of going online for staff that would push them to disaggregate the curriculum and experiment with online and blended formats.

The question of the pedagogy around going not only online, but also in disaggregating the curriculum was seen as a challenge vis-a-vis the need for curricular coherence and the pertinent questions surrounding the quality and identity of HE programs. In practical terms that translated into questioning if students could rebundle and construct disaggregated curricula and then make sense individually of their training as a whole; or if that required an extra sense of autonomy and agency that participants – all of them having had experience with short courses after finishing their graduate studies and working as education professionals – were better suited to do independently.

Some participants reported that the use of blended learning from external partners can be difficult to manage especially for older students at postgraduate level. Questions emerged around disciplinary boundaries and program identities, the loss of integration of curriculum when multiple actors are involved; and how university faculty could form fully-rounded professionals through short courses if they did not have a sense of wholeness of the curriculum. There was also concern regarding the definition of what quality and ownership over knowledge would mean in these cases.

In this group, there was a public perception of inferiority of online degrees as opposed to residential ones: a perception informed also by the low completion rate of UNISA, the biggest university in South Africa modelled upon the UK Open University and offering distance learning programs. A possible way to challenge this stigma was seen as the private certification from external partners at some companies engaged in certain crafts. Apprenticeship programs framed that way were seen as beneficial to students as exposure to the operation of companies could help students get a sense of work in the private sector. Some participants even saw benefits for private companies in this exchange, as it could mean that they could be influenced by ethos of public universities.

The commodification of education was seen as a threat, as the idea of genuine learning gets lost in a process of marketisation subjecting learning to a utilitarian market logic. Participants identified this logic in their universities, with the increased workload for staff and the challenges on academic freedom that metrics and performance mechanisms have posed on academics. There was a significant anxiety that under the promise of ‘building expertise’ opportunistic private companies could create long-lasting dependence and monopolies over the use of specific platforms within single institutions. This anxiety was coupled with a concern that such contracts were not always made because of the quality of the platform but because of personal connections between companies and the university management. A related question was that of the connection between established university brands and value of degrees and certified courses: would higher cost and more contact hours online necessarily translate into better degrees, or would MOOCs still mean as much if they came from universities with established brands?

The participants agreed that regardless of their previous answers, in South Africa and globally higher education needs to adapt to the new technological challenges. They shared the conviction that if other sectors, as media, were able to adapt to this challenge, the university could not afford to lag behind and not be abreast of technological developments. Leadership was one of the key features discussed as missing in this competition – participants saw the majority of leaders as not operating in pace with technology and the urgent need for increased development in this area. They also hoped that those in power in South Africa could make sure that both historically advantaged and historically disadvantaged institutions were able to take advantage of technological innovation.

In a hopeful scenario some participants saw higher education as a field creating critical thinkers who can acquire new knowledge through accredited online degrees. There was an optimism that online degrees could widen access and shape a new academic agency that could transform the boundaries of a traditional university by working with local communities and facing their needs through knowledge production. This direction of thinking was informed by the ever growing realisation that degrees were not preparing students for life after university and that the universities were chasing after rankings that had no index of local responsiveness. In a scenario like that, more agency would be given outside the university gates to small businesses of black owners, and more agency will be kept within universities by empowering students to craft their own degrees with short courses and CPDs adapted to their flexible needs and the needs of their communities.

A more pessimistic scenario saw the basic education system as an impediment to these developments. The inequalities and digital divide created at that level were discussed in connection to the ability of online learning to incentivise a more active or more passive participation in education. Participants perceived online learning as a potential threat that could deepen the passive nature of general education at HE level by offering the choice of passive video lectures rather than the participation in a vivid community of debate and co-construction of knowledge.

Participants shared the hope that technology could help to increase student contact with staff, and support students, but were worried that its introduction could mean replacing teachers with online media. Given the recent history of higher education in South Africa in the 1990s when private universities with no accreditation mushroomed in the country, students are also wary of online programs as scams and about paying for online education as they do not know whether to trust the source that provides it in partnership with universities. Thus, there was a shared mood around the need for change to happen gradually with investment in on- and off-campus Infrastructure and access to data and devices before unbundling started taking place.