Digital developments at SA universities

Two years of research examining how new digital models of teaching and learning are developing in higher education institutions in South Africa reveals that their popularity is increasing rapidly, but their use remains “concentrated” in historically advantaged universities.

The study into the emergence of online learning was led by a team of academics from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), in collaboration with the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Sukaina Walji, online education project manager in CILT, delivered the findings during her keynote address at the 2019 Apereo Africa Conference held at UCT this week. She said the team’s research focused on the changes currently under way in the higher education sector, which will ultimately lead to the unbundling of education provision at universities nationally.

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The conference was hosted by the Apereo Foundation, the core mission of which is to assist and facilitate educational organisations which collaborate to foster, develop and sustain open technologies and innovation that support teaching and learning. The conference programme included discussions on issues and solutions that use design and e-learning tools in a local context.

Apereo Africa brings together a range of higher education institutions involved in educational technology issues and solutions from open-source communities, such as Sakai (Vula) and Opencast (lecture recording). This year 70 delegates from over 17 institutions attended the conference.

Findings under the microscope

Walji’s address was titled: “The Unbundling University: Digital technology and emerging models in unequal landscapes”. She explained that unbundling refers to the process of breaking down the way education is delivered in higher education institutions and exploring alternative means of delivery, sometimes in partnership with private companies.

“The importance of digital technology … is around increased flexibility, scale and access.”

These new forms of education provision involve digital approaches, to keep pace with the demands of an evolving digital world.

“The importance of digital technology … is around increased flexibility, scale and access,” she said.

While research findings indicated that new ways of teaching and learning are gaining ground in South Africa, the advances still apply only to a handful of institutions.

She said more historically advantaged and “high-ranked” universities are adopting online, open-access and digital learning, and adapting to these global trends. But historically disadvantaged institutions continue to lag behind.

Some academics interviewed as part of the research said they remained sceptical about adopting digital ways of teaching and learning at tertiary level.

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“It’s difficult to do for a whole range of reasons,” one academic said.

However, some are reacting positively to this innovative, modern technology.

“It’s wonderful actually, because you’ve [even] got the quiet ones engaging, so their voices are being brought out,” said another.

Factors influencing unbundling

According to Walji, a range of factors shape the ways in which teaching is delivered and learning is received.

These, she said, include austerity processes at some institutions and the need to cut back due to tough economic times globally.“Worldwide, universities are under pressure to cut costs and digital technologies like the internet and web tools offer new opportunities for teaching and learning.”

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“Worldwide, universities are under pressure to cut costs and digital technologies like the internet and web tools offer new opportunities for teaching and learning.”

These new opportunities are not without their difficulties though – for students and educators.

The need to level the playing field for students by providing unlimited access to the internet, laptops and/or other devices is critical, she explained. Similarly, for academics, altered roles and new teaching teams are just two of the challenges with which they need to become familiar.

“Although it’s unequally distributed, more people are interacting digitally for all sorts of things – communication, shopping and banking, particularly using cellphones. Higher education [institutions] have changed as a result of digital technology,” she said.

“And all of this is impacting on a range of possibilities for classroom teaching.”

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