South African decision makers debate project findings

In March 2019, Laura Czerniewicz, Neil Morris, Alan Cliff, Bronwen Swinnerton and Sukaina Walji from the team were delighted to have the opportunity to engage with Higher Education policy makers and decision makers to discuss the implications of the emerging findings from the research. Co-hosted with the Centre on Higher Education (CHE), the event was held at the CHE with attendees from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Universities South Africa (USAf),  along with DVCs Teaching and Learning and Heads of Teaching and Learning Centres from universities in South Africa. Some 45 delegates filled the CHE with lively conversation ensuing. After a welcome from the CHE CEO Prof Narend Baijnath the programme took the form of a presentation by the research team on the emerging findings followed by a panel discussion with DVCs from the University of Cape Town and the University of Johannesburg, a Deputy Director General from DHET and the Chair in Educational Technology at Leeds University, with Prof Ahmed Bawa from USAf chairing the panel. The event concluded with the launch of the Massive Open Online Course, The Unbundled University, The Market and Digital Technology, which forms part of the research dissemination activities of this project. .

The objective of the event was to share the findings of the research and seek views on implications with leaders in South African Higher Education. This objective was certainly fulfilled if the discussion and questions that followed are anything to go by. While the discussion was wide-ranging, there seemed to be three threads running through the comments at the event.

1. Priorities in South African Higher Education

Whilst there was a general acknowledgement of the changing nature of higher education globally towards a more digitally mediated future with unbundled provision, the dominant view was that the more immediate issues in South Africa at present are access to and success in higher education itself, given the inherent inequalities in the system. With regards to digitisation, participants emphasised that there is still an urgent need to ensure equitable access to digital devices, Internet access, and use of blended learning to enhance the quality and throughput of campus-based education. At the same time participants provided examples of the use of digital technology on campus to improve access, flexibility and engagement with learning, to enhance the student learning experience, and to address the challenges of throughput. For some attendees, traditional learning methods and traditional distance education were considered more appropriate for the context of their learners, and some argued that online learning was not appropriate at the current time for the majority of their students.

For participants concerned with the role of digital technology and online learning in their universities, there was a general concern about appropriate pedagogical practices within the teaching community. Participants raised concerns about digital literacy for both students and educators, as well as pedagogical understanding for educators starting to use blended learning approaches.

Participants also provided examples of ‘internal unbundling’ where universities had disaggregated learning and teaching provision, and provided standalone learning in an online mode. In some cases, these courses were being produced to meet the demands of particular cohorts of learners, or to reach non-traditional students.

2. Challenges of collaboration and outsourcing

Participants at the event had heated discussions about the involvement of organisations outside of the higher education sector in the creation, development and delivery of online learning. An argument was made for the sector to organise itself to be able to deliver unbundled online learning courses without the need of for profit companies, and there were calls for increased collaboration between universities to work together to create and deliver these courses. A range of opinions were voiced about previous experience of South African universities working together, and doubt was expressed about this being effective, despite strong endorsement from government and sector body representatives. There seemed to be consensus, albeit unwilling at times, that some form of external organisation involvement would be required to facilitate the creation, sharing and delivery of unbundled online provision at a sectoral level – ideas included the provision of a national online learning platform.

While views expressed were mixed, there was a fair amount of scepticism from participants about the value of partnering with for-profit companies (e.g. Online Program Management companies) to develop and deliver unbundled online learning provision, despite examples of successful partnerships described by participants, and an acknowledgement that universities’ requirements to generate third stream income was a motivator. Some participants gave examples of previous partnerships with companies, which had resulted in a negative perception of their motivations, particularly when working with universities strongly focussed on the public good. Participants talked about the negative connotations of outsourcing academic activity especially in the light of recent events in the sector, where outsourcing had been one of the foci of student protests.

Related to industry demands for ‘work ready’ graduates which could influence the nature of provision, there was general agreement that there was a danger to the sector for aligning too closely to specific industry needs, which risks obsolescence (as industry changes), but this led to questions about what the university is for – what is the knowledge project of the university?

 3. The changing global environment and a South African response

Participants discussed some of the initiatives taking place in the global context e.g. New Zealand’s national standards for micro-credentials, and acknowledged the need for the South African higher education sector to engage with such opportunities as a means for improving access, through more flexible entry. However, some participants cited regulatory barriers as impediments to innovation and activity in this space; this was recognised by government and sector bodies present at the event. In general, there was an acknowledgement that the issue of microcredentials and flexible pathways made possible with granular learning units needed to be debated within the sector. There was a view for initiatives to be supported which could meet both the local and global challenges, and were appropriate for the South African context, taking into account the local challenges faced by students, educators and universities.