Students in South Africa: perspectives on digital technology and online learning provision in HE

During February and March 2018, members of our team conducted face-to-face surveys with 200 students at four South African universities. In the context of the Unbundled University research project, this phase of data collection aimed to explore how the emerging unbundled landscape in South Africa is perceived by students through their use of digital devices for learning and their awareness of online education provision. This blogpost presents some of the key findings that have emerged from an initial analysis of the responses.

In recent years South Africa’s public universities have been the sites of student protests: these have included calls for fees to be either reduced or dropped altogether; calls for decolonised curricula and more accessible education; they have also expressed dissatisfaction with the sector’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Within this contested context, the Department for Higher Education and Training (DHET) has pledged to develop relevant policies and funding mechanisms for universities to draw on the teaching and learning opportunities afforded by digital and online technologies (DHET, 2017). Noting the policy context, we have, in these surveys, focused on the experiences of students.

The sample

The four universities selected are diverse in terms of academic programmes offered, research focus, historical status from the Apartheid era, geographical context and THE ranking. Two are elite, historically advantaged, research-intensive institutions based in urban areas. One is a comprehensive university based in urban and township areas. The final is a historically disadvantaged institution based in a rural area (a former Apartheid homeland). Fifty students from each university were approached to participate in the study. We spent at least two days on each campus. Using the onlinesurveys.ac.uk platform to input the data as we conducted the surveys allowed us to track the demographics of our sample as it increased. Using this real-time analysis, we ensured that the sample was relatively representative of the population at each university, in alignment with demographic data collected by the DHET (2016).

The survey

The survey contained four sections:

  • Students’ access to digital devices, course-related digital activities, institutional digital provision and support of digital technologies for learning.
  • Students’ awareness of online courses/ degrees, perceptions of online learning in higher education and perceptions of the relationship between higher education institutions and private providers.
  • Students’ perceptions of the value of unbundled provision, perceptions of how future employers value campus-based and online courses and degrees.
  • Demographic details including gender, age, race, disciplinary field, year, level of study and how the participants’ studies are funded.

Key findings

Initial findings reveal a clear divide between the digital experiences of students at the two elite universities and at the rural university. The experiences of students at the comprehensive university were not constant with the two elite or rural universities but differ depending on the question and sometimes on the participant’s campus .

The survey results show similar access to the internet and digital devices but very different experiences in the usage of devices and online resources for learning. Access to digital devices does not necessarily translate into equal advantages for its users (Warschauer, 2004; Hargattai, 2008). Students from different universities have also had different digital experiences before entering the higher education system. Students from the rural university were far less likely to feel prepared to use digital devices at the beginning of their studies. However, having spent time in a higher education institution, almost all participants responded that they felt more confident using digital technologies for learning than when they started university. It is evident that all four universities are providing access to devices, the internet and training to develop students’ basic digital skills. However, this does not necessarily correlate with frequent usage of digital technologies for learning or awareness of online learning resources.

The rise in online education during the last decade is often linked to the promise of widening access and democratising education. A number of South African universities are partnering with local and global private companies to provide short courses, free courses or full programmes online.  A number of questions aimed to capture the phenomenon of unbundling as it is happening in the higher education sector and whether students have considered its risks, benefits and implications for employment. Again, differences in perspectives were most prominent between students from the two elite universities and the rural university. Participants from the elite universities were more likely to consider it a risk when short online courses chosen by a student are used to replace a full degree program put together by faculty members. More students from the rural university felt that a potential risk in taking an online course is being taught by staff with insufficient academic training, and students from the rural and merged universities mentioned scams, Ponzi schemes, credibility and accreditation issues as risks of taking an online course.

Drawing on a previous blogpost by Professor Neil Morris, in which he explored a number of patterns emerging from interviews with 26 higher education leaders, interviewees express a view of a digital divide amongst students within universities; between those who have digital devices, the means to access the internet, and the capabilities to use devices effectively for learning, and those who do not. In considering the perceived value of online learning, interviewees expressed concerns around faculty’s engagement in new teaching initiatives involving digital technology. The implications of training and investment around these digital and online change-initiatives at faculty-level, manifest through the digital literacies of graduates, and potentially contribute to digital inequalities in the workplace.

The initial analysis of the student survey data confirm the notion of a ‘digital divide’ between students within institutions and even more so between students from different institutions. This suggests that the type and historical status of institutions is dominant in shaping students’ experience of digital technology, how much digital technology is used for learning, and their awareness and engagement in online learning. Our analysis of data within the Unbundled University project has begun to tease out perceptions around the purpose of the university, the provisions of learning and how technology supports these activities. The digital literacies of graduates empower or hinder their flexibility as lifelong learners in the workplace and in society and have the potential to further increase existing social inequalities. This goes beyond the recognition of a ‘digital divide’. It involves the study of digital inequalities reinforcing, and even exacerbating, existing social inequalities as pre-existing differences in human capital are transferred into online settings (DiMaggio & Garip, 2012).

As we continue our analysis of data collected in the Unbundled University research project, we aim to present a comparative and integrated analysis of interviews with senior managers in higher education institutions, academic staff members and students in light of the anticipated value of online learning, debates around digital inequality and the phenomenon of unbundling in the HE sector.

Source: ctrlroom

References

DHET. (2016). Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in South Africa. Pretoria: DHET.

DHET. (2017). Department of Higher Education and Training’s Position on Online Programme and Course Offerings. Pretoria: DHET.

DiMaggio, P., & Garip, F. (2012). Network effects and social inequality. Annual Review of Sociology, 38, 93-118.

Hargittai, E. (2008). ‘The digital reproduction of inequality’, in Social Stratification, ed. D. Grusky, Westview Press, Boulder, pp. 936–944.

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and Social Inclusion: Re-thinking the Digital Divide, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

#LeedsDigi18: The impact of digital on the future of the university: a panel discussion with employers (VIDEO)

On the 23rd of April 2018 the Leeds team of our project held an event as part of the Leeds Digital Festival. The event commenced with a short presentation from the project team about our ESRC/NRF-sponsored research project The Unbundled University with an emphasis on how our findings shed light on changes in UK Higher Education and the role of digital technology in this process. The presentation described the proliferation of ‘non-traditional’ courses and qualifications that UK universities now develop, using digital technology to offer online and blended learning provision. The purpose of the presentation was to inform the panel and the audience about some of the findings of the project in order to provide some background to the discussion.

The presentation was followed by a panel, which included representatives from a number of private and public sector employers, and representatives of the university community engaged in the discussion of student employability: Amanda Hardcastle, Head of Human Resources, Cap-Hpi, Prof. Sarah Underwood,  Leeds University Business School; Sam Raife, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at Bewonder*, Tim Riches, a Co-Founder Digitalme and Zaki Kaf Al-Ghazal, Education Officer at Leeds University Union. The event was also attended by an audience not only from the academic community but also from the broader public, who enjoyed a vibrant discussion with the presenters, chair and panelists.

In a round of short provocative questions from the panel chair, Professor Neil Morris, members of the panel shared their views and experiences as employers of the changing nature of higher education : their perception of new modes of higher education provision with the introduction of digital technologies and increasing online learning options; and their expectations of how new developments in higher education would impact on the education and skills of their future employees. The questions asked to the panel were as follows:

  • Are you satisfied with the current HE system in terms of the knowledge, skills and behaviours that graduates exhibit?
  • Do you encourage young people looking for employment / your employees to do online training? What value do you see in online training? Do you encourage your employees to use online courses for CPD purposes?
  • Imagine the following scenario: two people are shortlisted for a job at your company or organisation, one coming from traditional campus-based education, the other has CV full of online educational qualifications only. Who would you employ?
  • What concerns do you have about the idea of unbundled online education qualifications?
  • What are the benefits of unbundled online education from your perspective?

Beyond these questions, members of the audience also inquired about the ways in which unbundled provision could challenge the possibly outdated ways in which universities teach in spaces and delivery modes which contemporary students might not be comfortable with, and the more efficient and productive ways in which universities could make connections with employers.

Drawing on their experiences and perspectives within their own professional positions, the members of the panel articulated a number of challenges for employers to engage with university graduates. Tim Riches, Sam Raife and Amanda Hardcastle spoke of new ways in which student capacities are evaluated by employers: ‘human’ or soft skills and curiosity were outlined as the two important assets that could make students more attractive to companies, rather than more technical skills. According to Raife, there are certain software applications which are seen as quite desirable for potential employees to master: students who are trained in them stand a higher chance to get a job. Still, on the question of CVs all panelists seemed to agree that what Zaki Kaf Al-Ghazal called ‘the living CV’ was crucial as it indicated experience within the university (volunteering at the university, participating in different societies and activities) and made you more suited to the needs of the job market. This type of experience, according to Amanda Hardcastle trains students in skills such as resilience, that could be useful in building one’s own career which, according to her, is not the responsibility of line managers but of employees. For Sarah Underwood, universities today face the challenge of making their students aware that such skills, that amount to entrepreneurial behaviours, should be seen as a central component of their training. In this regard, as well, employers among the panelists saw CVs as increasingly redundant beyond the shortlist stage, and suggested that behaviours mattered more. Tests for practical application of knowledge during interviews or referrals were what they said might soon replace CVs.

Another question which panelists addressed was that of digital skills training of university graduates and potential employees. Some of the members of the panel discussed the generational difference: students today have a shorter attention span and encouraging the introduction of digital technologies in teaching and learning could address this new challenge for educators and make learning more productive for students. From the emoloyability point of view, all panelists acknowledged that a lot of the communication and training at the contemporary workplace (be it larger private companies such as Cap-Hpi, small size companies, or the Leeds Student Union) happened online and required good online communication skills. Sarah Underwood emphasised that this was one of the lessons which she and her colleagues were trying to impress upon students. Zaki Kaf Al-Ghazal confirmed that this was crucial from the student point of view, but also noted that online learning allows a larger pool of previously atypical student groups (people with caring responsibilities, with disabilities, and those based overseas) to access university lectures and get certification, and training for them was as  equally important as for students doing fully-residential degrees. These two panel membersalso engaged with the question of the relatively conservative nature and slow pace of the operation of universities when it came to learning spaces and modes of delivery that suit the new generation. Professor Underwood explained that academics saw their disciplines and love for knowledge production and dissemination as priority, and considered students’ needs as secondary to these concerns.

The members of the panel also discussed the difference they saw between students with traditional degrees and those with mix-and-match CVs that list unbundled courses from different universities and companies. While the overall agreement was that the panelists themselves did not see unbundled courses as inferior to a full campus-based degree, the opinion of different panel members varied. Amanda Hardcastle and Tim Riches declared themselves in favour of the mix-and-match method and said they would not think that employers would see it as detrimental when hiring potential employees. Sam Raife insisted that ‘being a good fit’ for the company was the key asset that potential employees should demonstrate and their credentials would be secondary to that. Still, he said that while that was his take on the subject, the presentation of the Unbundled University project had showed that perhaps the broader public still saw residential degrees from prestigious universities as more telling for a candidate’s qualities and he was not sure when and under what circumstances this tendency could shift. Sarah Underwood spoke from the viewpoint of academics that a full degree designed by universities would still be seen as the only guarantee that universities can give in terms of quality assurance of training professionals. She reminded the audience of what the employers in the panel had said: while additional courses could show curiosity and engagement, the base-line credential for shortlisting candidates would still be the traditional degree that showed the graduate came from a certain calibre of university.

Panel members also briefly addressed the question of public-private partnerships. All panelists said universities should more actively seek connections with employers: be it through different programs such as RSA’s Cities of Learning, suggested by Tim Riches or through providing a clearer pathway for employers to enter and engage with student communities, pointed out by Sarah Underwood. Amanda Hardcastle also insisted that for private companies, partnering was crucial to serve their needs as they could not possibly hire experts in all fields. Referring to the Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices Riches also emphasised the potential role of universities in defining and standardising the softs skills which the review pointed to as crucial for employment in the future. Representing the student point of view Zaki Kaf Al-Ghazal said that it was important that employers and students were involved in co-designing the curriculum and that such an approach could guarantee the readiness of students for the world of work and the world outside the university gate. At the same time, he also underlined that universities should be seen as public good and they should not go private but should endeavour to secure access to a large variety of learners from diverse backgrounds and at different levels. Sarah Underwood concluded the discussion by saying that often students do not see the long-term consequences of choices that they are making and perhaps the university should offer more support in order to outline career options and provide better support for students on their entry into the world of work.

 

 

The impact of digital on the future of the university: a panel discussion with employers

Posted by The Unbundled University on Monday, April 23, 2018

Leeds Digital Festival: The Impact of Digital on the Future of the University: A Panel Discussion with Employers

Monday 23rd April 2018 3.30 pm – 5.00 pm

Room 1.08, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9JT

Click to book your place

The event will commence with a short presentation from the project team about our ESRC-sponsored research project The Unbundled University and how UK Higher Education is changing and the role of digital technology in this. This presentation will describe the proliferation of ‘non-traditional’ courses and qualifications that UK universities now offer, using digital technology to offer online and blended learning provision.

This panel will include representatives from a number of private and public sector employers from the area and will engage employers and the larger audience, including members of the public, with some of the questions and topics we cover in our project.

In a round of short provocative questions from the panel chair, Professor Neil Morris, the panel presenters will share their views on, and experiences of, the changing nature of higher education as employers: how they perceive the changing higher education provision with the introduction of digital technologies and increasing online learning options; and how they anticipate that the new developments in higher education will impact on the level of education and skills of their future employee. After this initial round, the audience will be invited to engage in discussion with the panel and to share their own views and experiences of the questions posed by the chair.

 

 

 

 

 

Online learning designs – synchronous and asynchronous models of online learning and how these relate to unbundling

Recently, in December 2017, I attended the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education’s Global Forum on Online Learning which was a gathering to assess and review the potential of online learning in Higher Education from a global perspective. The 2 day forum brought together a somewhat eclectic mix of people – these included university senior leaders, academics and teachers, educational managers, instructional designers and regulators as well as private providers of educational services. This mix itself is indicative of the many players that are now involved in online learning provision. The opportunity to engage and hear different perspectives made this gathering particularly valuable to gauge the nature and trajectory of online learning development globally. It also indicates how online learning provision is being increasingly unbundled and rebundled. In the Unbundling project our definition of unbundling is as follows:

Unbundling is the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts likely for delivery by multiple stakeholders, often using digital approaches and which can result in rebundling.

An example of unbundled educational provision could be a degree programme offered as individual standalone modules available for credit via an online platform, to be studied at the learners’ pace, in any order, on a pay-per-module model, with academic content, tutoring and support being offered by the awarding university, other universities and a private company.

When reflecting on the presentations and conversations through the lens of the Unbundled University project, it was evident that the language of the ‘market’ is prevalent and normalised in these spaces. The conversation was around how online learning in Higher Education is a global market with institutions and organisations having something to offer and to gain from this expanding international terrain. The forum was framed to discuss to what extent and in what ways online learning was globally established and what opportunities there were for its expansion. An interesting (and perhaps surprising) insight was that while online learning is potentially a global export, in the sense that anyone from any geographical location can take an online course in another continent, analysis of student take-up suggests that many students choose to take an online programme from an institution in their own country or in geographical proximity. This suggests that online students are attuned to local or regional opportunities, even though they may never physically visit the campus; while other factors such as national or regional recognition of particular qualifications may play a part in students’ choices.

In this post I focus specifically on describing models of online learning provision of higher education that were discussed at the forum, as this relates to how students experience online learning, the impact on the students of these various models and how these models are being conceived and operationalised, including resourcing and working with private and alternative providers. While online learning seems new and has become more prominent in part due to increasing exposure around MOOCs, it’s also worth reiterating that online learning did not suddenly start with MOOCs in 2012 but has a longer history and there is much to learn from earlier adopters.

The student experience of online learning

In his opening keynote OBHE Director Richard Garrett talked about the current status and trends in online learning adoption by Higher Education institutions. His key message was that online learning uptake has been slower than might have been expected worldwide, and he made some interesting comments about some of the perceived limitations of online learning as experienced by students. He said that the typical online course suffered from the following characteristics:

● Tended to be text heavy with little ‘personal presence’
● The norm appeared to be asynchronous modes with an over-dependence on threaded discussions
● Depended on familiar instructional and assessment methods – textbooks, readings and essays which sought to imitate the physical classroom

In this scenario, the default pedagogical approach is one of an asynchronous virtual classroom environment with peer interaction mainly through discussion forums. In this form the tutor/teacher is mainly a facilitator with content delivery through readings, audio and video. The students do not have to be the same place at the same time to learn together with synchronous live events being supplementary, additionally beneficial or special occasions. This mode was and continues to be a common approach to offering online learning, and has been one that early adopters or those who have moved from a distance learning mode to an online distance learning mode have offered. It caters for students’ needs for flexibility in terms of time through the asynchronous mode as well as being mindful of connectivity and bandwidth considerations.

A number of participants posited that this sort of approach – while convenient and simple to use – was often not engaging. Attempts to transfer face-to-face pedagogies online rather than designing for online affordances was pedagogically unimaginative, while practical issues such as bandwidth and connectivity constraints make using rich media and real-time interaction difficult. Drop-out rates for students in distance and online modes tend to be higher with the lack of social or teacher presence being key contributing factors. Historically, this model had come out of the distance education model, with traditionally distance universities moving to online spaces. In the growing international higher education marketplace, these types of offerings might be less appealing to international undergraduate students who have a wider range of offerings to choose from, including different types of credentials than the formal degree (such as specialisations offered by MOOC providers).

There were some lively discussions around the asynchronous-oriented model of online learning and how it is evolving. Institutions who are using a form of this model shared experiences that while this type of online learning pedagogy had initially started off with text-based content and assessments, it has evolved as digital tools offer richer opportunities for interaction with video with online labs and simulations also becoming more prevalent. More wrap-around student support is also offered. For example Liverpool University’s online programmes offer their students a full support model including student support managers and a collaborative environment, while IT support and 24/7 student support is provided by a private provider. The University of London’s International Programmes online degrees offer extensive student support with support being ‘developmental’ enabling a range of competency and skill development in online spaces. Student feedback suggests that well designed environments in a predominantly asynchronous mode and the resultant student experience is comparable with a face to face encounter..

Other models of online learning veer more towards a more synchronous mode where the default is to replicate the coming together of students in the same space with a teacher or facilitator. One interesting example is that from Minerva University which offers virtual live synchronous classrooms as the predominant model with a platform custom designed to enable all students to see each other in one space digitally. In this approach, the focus of the students’ week is to arrive at the live classroom for the instruction and teaching. Students may have prepared using materials available asynchronously and will have activities following the live synchronous session, but their regular virtual attendance is crucial as part of the design. Sophisticated video conferences app tools such as live polling and embedded analytics are parts of the platform design, that give the tutor a real- time report of student performance including participation metrics.

There were some useful discussions amongst participants about which types of online pedagogical approaches suited certain students and also an acknowledgement that there isn’t a straight dichotomy between the two approaches. The live virtual classroom mode seems to be increasingly feasible given improvements in bandwidth and may well overcome some of the issues around teacher and student presence that has been a concern of the more asynchronous distance education models. Yet issues such as global cohorts meeting together synchronously across different time zones is a challenge. In both models and the continuum in between, there is a potential for unbundled provision in the types of student support and in some cases in the teaching approaches online. The focus on student support in online spaces was a key theme of discussion highlighting concerns about high historical drop-out rates in online courses with a better appreciation of the different types of student support that works, ranging from academic, psychosocial, pastoral and skills (such as building students’ digital literacies). These forms of support are increasingly unbundled with responsibilities shared between academic teams and private providers, as well as the use of sophisticated analytics and machine learning for monitoring and assisting students at risk.

In terms of what is working (or might work) in South African Higher Education, a number of online learning models are in place although the sector for full formal online learning is very small with a handful of programmes currently on offer. Most of these are currently offered with private providers, and the nature of unbundling in terms of responsibilities of the academic institution and the private provider bears scrutiny. Our research is mapping which South African universities are providing credit-bearing qualifications, with what type of provider, and our interviews are shedding light on the types of business models. The discussions at the OBHE Forum brought up important issues of pedagogy, design and student support choices related to local contexts, and that these choices as to how to construct and design online learning experiences will impact on the nature of students’ learning experience and their success. Our research is also indicating that these choices are also influenced by different and competing reasons, such as desire for third stream income, ameliorating resource availability and capacity on campus, approaches from private providers or expanding access to currently underserved populations.

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.

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

Report from #Heltasa2017 workshop Unbundling Higher Education, Part I: The Changing Nature of Public Universities through Public-Private Partnerships in 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 digitalisation 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 first 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 second blog  we will speak on how participants saw the influence of digital technologies and curricular disaggregation on teaching and learning provision.

Read moreReport from #Heltasa2017 workshop Unbundling Higher Education, Part I: The Changing Nature of Public Universities through Public-Private Partnerships in Teaching & Learning Provision

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.

Read morePerceptions of the impact of digital technology on unbundling in Higher Education

Emergence and role of private providers in the South African Higher Education landscape

In this blog post Sukaina Walji, part of the The Unbundled University: researching emerging models in an unequal landscape project team takes a preliminary look at the emergence and role(s) of private providers in the South African Higher Education landscape. (Our study also includes England and Higher Education providers but in this blog we focus only on South Africa)

The Unbundled University research project is examining what constitutes the ‘unbundled university’ and considers the intersection of marketisation, digital technologies and the notion of unbundling (defined as the increasing disaggregation of services and curricula provided by a Higher Education institution). As part of the examination of the forces that are enabling unbundling we are interesting in understanding the role and nature of ‘private providers’ as a way to understand the evolving nature of Higher Education provision in South Africa, and in particular what makes up the various components that are part of the ‘bundle of services’.  We acknowledge that ‘private providers’ is a very broad category, and in this project we wish to examine more closely the types of services and relationships that currently exist and are likely to emerge between public institutions and private providers.

This blog post shares some preliminary work by the team, and which has begun with a process of ‘mapping the terrain’. In terms of scope we consider ‘private provider’ falling into two broad categories:

  1. Private universities, which offer degrees and accredited qualifications to South African tertiary students. Their core product is then largely the same as a public HE institution: degrees for enrolled students.
  2. Entities, business and service providers that are privately owned and provide services to public (or private) HE institutions.

In this blog post and in our study we are predominantly concerned with understanding the second of these categories – the entities, businesses and service providers which seek to support, service and partner with universities. This is not to minimise the existence of and potential influence of private universities as part of the broader context, but for reasons of containing scope they do not form part of our study.

The context in South Africa

Our first policy brief in this project outlined the broad context of the changes and forces that are shaping changes in the South African Higher Education sector. Policy initiatives have encouraged many public institutions to consider online and blended learning to offer new programmes, and increasing numbers of students are studying through distance education programmes at predominantly residential institutions. This is enabled by the availability of ICTs which is allowing for more flexible forms of provision, sometimes known as mixed mode or blended learning which can offer tertiary education to a wider group of potential students. A number of South African universities are offering various types of provision online including paid-for short courses for certification, post-graduate diplomas, Master’s degrees and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These types of provision are increasing year on year and are motivated by a range of factors including the potential for third stream income, reaching so-called non-traditional learners who require more flexibility, increasing capacity in the sector and reaching new geographical markets.

Moves towards more flexible forms of provision have also been catalysed by the emergence of student movements at South African universities under the banner of #feesmustfall  which have resulted in partial shutdowns where physical access to on-campus facilities was restricted. In a drive to keep on teaching and to complete the academic year, many educators turned to virtual modes of teaching which ranged from using simple communications technologies such as email and WhatsApp to keep classes going to more sophisticated modes such as live virtual classrooms or extensive use of a learning management system. As well as individual academics keeping their classes going through virtual modes, a number of institutions formally turned to online and blended modes to complete the academic year. While these strategies took place in a “crisis mode”, the medium term effects seem to have resulted in more interest in the potential of online and blended teaching and learning spaces.

Given these forces and developments, South African universities are grappling with how to resource and produce courses and programs in online modes, as our first set of interviews seem to indicate. The skills and resources needed to produce new educational opportunities require finding new resources to fund online education development including paying for instructional design, course production including video production, technical infrastructure, maintenance, student support and management. This range of skills and new needs mean that most traditional residential universities have to consider a number of options for resourcing online education provision. Whether this is done in house with developing new units and jobs or whether these services are bought in either through outsourcing or partnering with private providers is a key decision needing to be made by Higher Education leaders.

Types and nature of private providers

At the same time as universities have expressed interest and started projects to develop online courses, the notion or idea of education as a business opportunity has become increasingly of interest to investors, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. This has been the case in the Global North for some time with many educational businesses servicing educational institutions and thus constituting a form of ‘marketization’ of education or a ‘global education industry’. Worldwide it is clear that education is seen as a potential market in which businesses can take an interest or stake in an educational endeavour and for which some return is expected. With increasing austerity worldwide and cuts to public funding to universities, institutions appear receptive to how new projects such as online learning provision might be achieved in the absence of inhouse funding for investment. Many of these businesses are referred to, as in this Inside Higher Ed article,  as online program management providers (OPM) while others use ‘edu-businesses’ or ‘enabler companies’ as a catch-all term. In the South African market, a number of private companies are currently providing a range of services to South African universities across a range and spectrum of services.

The diagram provides an overview of the types of activities an educational institution might engage in when developing an online education program. Any of these activities can potentially be provided by a private provider and at different entry points.

 

 

 

 

 

View larger diagram (link to a Google Slide)

While the entry points can be at any stage, if an institution is starting from scratch, it is likely to start with strategic planning and readiness assessment as the first stage. By way of illustration a brief explanation of each stage is given below with some possible examples:

Strategy and readiness: this is the first phase where the private provider helps an institution develop a strategy or strategies for what sort of online provision is required and ascertains the institution’s readiness. This may involve engaging with policy level and accreditation requirements for any new programs as well as analysing the technical and platform infrastructure. For example an institution might be interested in starting short courses in executive education and wants to consider the opportunities in the market as well as what it would take to start a short course program in executive education. Current learning platforms would be evaluated as well as a needs analysis of what potential new consumers might require.

Planning at program level: following on from strategy and readiness, this phase involves planning programs and products and includes ascertaining the specific business models and funding requirements for a new online education initiative and what models there are to partner with an external company. This also includes taking into account the marketing, admissions and accreditation needs of any particular programs. For example an institution might be interested in offering a number of postgraduate diplomas in online mode and needs to firm up the parameters and business model for any given program including how many students would need to be enrolled for the program to be viable, what the price point might be given the costs (that include marketing, admissions and administration support) as well as what level of funding is required for the initiative and what sources might be drawn on. This phase will also involve faculty buy-in and appointment of program convenors.

Design, production and delivery at course level: This phase comprises a series of pathways that consider the design of courses, production of materials, development of assessments and the course delivery process. Following launch, the phase also includes course support and maintenance.

The diagram shows not only the phases of a full scale online education development and production model from the point of view of an institution, but also shows at a level of granularity the types of services and tasks – effectively the components that make up the bundle. We are seeing that enabler companies and edu-businesses are coming in at different points to offer different services, and our preliminary analysis in the South African context shows two main types of companies:

Multi-service companies which offer a full range of services which an institution might pick and choose from. Effectively a multi-service education provider might offer an institution a complete service that includes developing an online education strategy or conceptualising products and then offering production,design, development and launch.. Examples globally include Cengage, 2U, Academic Partnerships, and multi-service online education provision is an area that some of the major MOOC platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn are moving into as they evolve their business models. A local South African example is Getsmarter (which was recently purchased by 2U). While GetSmarter/2U and Academic Partnerships are actively operating in the South African Higher Education sector, many other companies are tentatively exploring the possibilities of the South African Higher Education market.

The other type of provider is one that offers a single-service such as exam proctoring or tutoring and can range from large scale organisations to small localised ones. Examples include ProctorU, PearsonVue and also includes providers of Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard or Canvas.

The role of private providers and their business models is evolving with differing views of their effectiveness and potential impact on quality of offerings, and also on their potential to impact on the purpose of higher education itself as in this example to enable more career ready graduates. One of the outcomes of this project is to assist senior leadership in universities including strategists, procurement officers and institutional planning departments to understand the nature of what private providers are offering in terms of business models, services, and what the implications and consequences of various models of an unbundled and rebundled partnership might be.

We welcome comments on the description of the online education bundle described here,  whether the categorisation of private providers resonates, and if there are other examples of business models or partnerships in the South African Higher Education sphere. The author welcomes feedback and can be contacted via email sukaina.walji@uct.ac.za or via Twitter @sukainaw.

Reflections from AltC: Unbundling, rebundling and the ‘new normal’ for higher education

In this blog post Rebecca Swartz, part of the The Unbundled University: researching emerging models in an unequal landscape team, relates her impressions of the AltC conference, where she and Alan Cliff presented on the project.

Alan Cliff and I recently had the opportunity to attend  AltC, held at the University of Liverpool from 5-7 September 2017. The theme of the conference, ‘Beyond islands of innovation – how Learning Technology became the new norm(al)’, provoked interesting discussion about the nature of technological change in higher education today, and urged participants to consider the language of ‘disruption’ in higher education discourse. The conference attracted university-based researchers and learning technologists, as well as representatives from the private sector. One of the most interesting parts of the conference was talking to private providers in the Exhibition Hall. This gave Alan and I a sense of the plethora of educational technologies on offer to institutions in the UK, as well as drawing our attention to the changing nature of higher education provision in that context.

Read moreReflections from AltC: Unbundling, rebundling and the ‘new normal’ for higher education

MOOCs and the potential for unbundled higher education provision

One of the catalysts that inspired this research project is the seemingly disruptive influence of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Higher Education provision and the potential for ‘unbundling’ that MOOCs offer. Globally there is an increasing demand for Higher Education, and MOOCs, which offer a form of flexible educational provision at scale, have been labelled as having the potential to transform Higher Education particularly as they evolve into different forms of provision such as being offered as accredited courses or  involving organisations other than universities. The New York Times declared 2012 as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ (1) and Anant Agarwal, president of the MOOC platform edX said ‘I like to call this the year of disruption and the year is not over yet’ (2). MOOCs were hyped as the means to reach those students who could not afford a traditional route to education, particularly Higher Education.

Evolution of the MOOC landscape

There are many reasons why Higher Education Institutions have become involved in developing and offering MOOCs: as a business opportunity to expand their market potential; to raise awareness of an institution’s research and teaching excellence and broaden the brand globally; to entice students through a free course to a more formal paying course; to widen access to those unable to pay or attend face to face; and for some, simply to not miss out on offering this new form of provision. As John Mitchell, the vice-provost at Stanford responsible for online learning stated: ‘I think everyone agrees there’s something very exciting going on here. So how do we as a university participate in that?’ (3)

Read moreMOOCs and the potential for unbundled higher education provision