Digital South Africa

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 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


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.