2013 – An African making sense of signals and noise in higher and distance education (#etmooc)


2013 - an African perspectiveDisclaimer: I write this overview of some of the challenges facing higher and distance education in Africa in 2013, from the specific context of my location in South Africa. I cannot, however, speak on behalf of Africa. Even my identity as an African is continuously contested and rejected on grounds of my skin colour (white) and gender (gay).  Despite these contestations, being African is an identity that I chose to embrace – with all the responsibilities, challenges and baggage any identity marker brings. (If you are interested, read my reflection – Being an African: some queer remarks from the margins)

During my December break, I read Nate Silver’s “The signal and the noise. The art and science of prediction” (2012). As someone who is numerically challenged (another disclaimer), but someone who is embedded in making sense of the claims and predictions in higher and distance education, I thought the book would introduce me to the limits and potential of predictions and forecasts in higher education. Though the book did introduce me to the discourses and complexities surrounding modelling and predictions, I found huge parts of the book difficult reading due to the book’s assumptions that everyone has a working knowledge of American baseball, American politics and poker… Despite these drawbacks, the book provided me with glimpses of the need to distinguish between noise and signals in higher education. Silver (2012) states that most of the information produced today is “just noise, and the noise is increasing faster than the signal” (p. 13).  So how does one go about in making sense of all the claims and counter claims in higher and distance education? How does one recognize (and predict) patterns and signals?

The matter is, however, not so simple (maybe it never was?). Audrey Watters, in her blog “Why I’m Not Making Ed-Tech Predictions for 2013”, makes a personal case for not attempting to predict trends in educational technology in 2013, while Tony Bates in his first blog of 2013, “Why predicting online learning developments is risky but necessary” claims that, despite the issues raised by Watters, he feels that, not only is he in a position to make predictions, but also that it is necessary. In a follow-up blog “Outlook for online learning in 2013: online learning comes of ageBates then continues to make a number of predictions such as

  • that online learning will “come of age” in 2013 and move from the periphery to the centre
  • there will be an increase in hybrid learning that will necessitate “the re-design of courses to integrate the best of online and campus-based teaching”
  • online learning will become an integral part of institutional strategic plans
  • outsourcing will increase, such as, inter alia, 24/7 technical support, learning management systems, learner support/tutoring, and course design
  • the evolution of massive open online courses (MOOCs) will continue
  • open textbooks will become the norm
  • the use of tablets will transform pedagogy
  • flexible course design will become a necessity
  • Mexico and Asia needs to be watched in the international domain.

Bates’ last prediction namely “expect the unexpected” includes “monsters lurking in the shadows” such as the privatization of post-secondary education in the USA, Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon entering higher education offering educational opportunities at a profit, with accreditation by elite universities and a possible backlash against the open educational resources (OER) movement with the tightening of copyright legislation. Also see Steve Wheeler’s series of posts on the future of education.

Many of the challenges facing international higher and distance education in 2013 such as the increasing convergence between traditional face-to-face higher education and distance education and e-learning, changing funding regimes, the impact of neoliberalism, the economic downturn and technology,  also impact on higher and distance education on the African continent. These international trends in higher and distance education do and will continue to shape higher and distance education on the African continent and in South Africa. Castells (2009) warns that while not everyone is included in a global networked society, everyone is affected – “exclusion from these networks, often in a cumulative process of exclusion, is tantamount to structural marginalization in the global network society” (p. 25). This process “overwhelms the local – unless the local becomes connected to the global as a node in alternative global networks constructed by social movements” (p.26).  Many of the challenges facing higher education on the African continent are embedded in the nexus of local versus global, alternative epistemologies and changes in international and local geopolitical alliances and networks.

In the rest of the blog I therefore try to make sense of the changes and challenges facing higher education with specific reference to higher and distance education in South Africa and on the African continent.

  1. The link between higher education and (un)employment. With an unofficial unemployment rate of close to 40%, and many graduates joining the queues of the desperate-for-work, we need to re-examine and possibly redefine many of our assumptions about higher education. Except for the growth in the NiNi (Not-in-employment, not-in-education) generation, we also have to consider the huge number of students in higher distance education who drop out before their second year, or take longer than 8 years to complete their qualification. We have to seriously reconsider, inter alia,
  • The structure of our qualifications. In the South African higher education context, should students not complete their qualifications and “exit” at an earlier stage, this leaves them with just an uncompleted qualification. The earlier regime of “exit-level qualifications” were discarded a number of years ago. I realise there were (most probably) sound reasons for the change (e.g. issues of subsidization, etc.), but I sincerely think that the new regime leaves students who exit their qualifications earlier than planned, poorer in a number of ways.
  • Our belief that tertiary education is necessarily appropriate or necessary for everyone. After decades of excluding prospective students on racial grounds, and a non-functioning Further Education and Training (FET) sector, tertiary education is seen (and marketed) as a basic ‘right’, and your ticket to employment and the ‘good life.’ For many years South Africa’s primary and secondary school education did not (and still do not…) allow learners to discover and realize their potential. Any attempt to withhold this ‘right’ through admission requirements, capping of registration numbers and bridging courses are seen as dehumanizing and perpetuating the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. We need to critically question and engage with our assumptions, claims and counter-claims regarding the role and composition of post-secondary school education in the 21st century.
  • Not only are most students totally under-prepared for higher and distance education, the institutions themselves are equally under-prepared to deal with these students’ specific needs, unrealized potential and the daunting reality that their dream for a better future will be (once again) deferred. When square pegs don’t fit round holes, we usually blame the pegs, and we never question the shape of the hole…

 2.       Going digital and mobile. For years the debates on the impact of technologies on African higher education were shaped by the constructs such as the ‘digital divide’, and ‘digital natives’/ ‘digital immigrants.’ These constructs have been deconstructed and discredited as neither being based on empirical evidence nor sufficiently nuanced (see for example, Czerniewicz & Brown, 2010; Bennet & Maton, 2010)  Mobile technologies (e.g. smart phones and tablets) offer huge potential for African higher education. The challenge is however how to harness this potential for teaching and learning. While the cost of smartphones have decreased and is forecasted to decrease even further, the cost and sustainability of connectivity are continuing concerns in our efforts to optimize the potential of mobile technologies. With students having access to a wide range of devices, institutions are faced with the possibilities and challenges of offering device-independent teaching and learning with implications for formats, readability, content-generation or use, etc.

3.       Going massive and open. While there is a lot of hype regarding the potential of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to include those not currently in higher education, recent research show that current enrolments in MOOCs are limited to those already in higher education or employment (see Beyond the MOOC Hype: Answers to the Five Biggest MOOC Questions, Part 1). Though these initiatives do offer potential for those not formally enrolled in higher education, we have not touched the immense need to open education for those who have never completed their primary and secondary school education. While the massification of higher education is embedded in the discourses and practices of addressing the legacies of apartheid, we cannot ignore the bigger questions regarding the role of higher education (see point 1), accreditation, the need for sustainable business models for massive (and open) higher education, and addressing the needs of the millions outside the epistemologies of privilege currently germane in higher education.

4.       Out with the old, in with the new (or not?) While present day fashion has made ‘old’ and ‘worn’ fashionable (you cannot buy a pair of jeans without it being torn in several places and with some permanent and carefully placed dirt marks), education seems mesmerized by the ‘new’ and the ‘latest.’ While I don’t contest that some of the latest advances in technology do offer interesting educational opportunities, this does not mean (necessarily) that we need to (always and immediately) discard the ‘old.’ Surely there is a way to embrace the potential of the ‘new’ while (still) nurturing and supporting the best of the ‘old’? We seem to have sold out to thinking in binary terms (where ‘old’ is bad and ‘new’ is good) instead of embracing the fluidity of continuums where ‘old’ and ‘new’ can function interchangeably and appropriately dependent on the context.

 5.       Can anything good come from Africa?  Africa and Africans have, for years, been defined (and are still defined) by North-Atlantic discourses and knowledge regimes as being backward, dark, second-best and in need of sympathy (not to mention development aid).  The implications of ‘being defined’ by these discourses and knowledge regimes, include, but are not limited to the following:

  • For years we internalized the superiority of North-Atlantic knowledge regimes and imported curricula and text books. While there is an urgent need to acknowledge that indigenous knowledge systems and ways of seeing the world are equally worthy for inclusion in our curricula and assessment practices, we should also be wary to romanticize, essentialize and even invent the past and the local. All knowledge is ideological – whether produced in the North-Atlantic or whether local. Just because local knowledge is indigenous does not make it neutral.
  • Many African scholars and researchers can testify how difficult it is to be acknowledged as an equal in the research, publishing and conference regimes in North-Atlantic contexts.  Our African addresses seem to exclude us from many international conferences and publishing regimes. Many African scholars’ attempts to be accepted by North-Atlantic journals are met with rejection because the research was ‘too African’, parochial and not suited for an international (read North-Atlantic) audience, and/or that the article/paper does not contribute to the discourse (framed by North-Atlantic assumptions and epistemologies). Don’t get me wrong. As a researcher I don’t want to be included in a conference proceeding or journal just on the basis of my address. African scholars and researchers can also not expect that our research can be less rigorous or meet different criteria just because we are from a developing world context.
  • While many graduates produced in North-Atlantic contexts have very little understanding of the impact of imperialism and colonialism on world and specifically African history, African graduates cannot afford to be ignorant regarding world history and the major events that shaped Africa and the world. I spoke to two graduates this week, an engineer and an accountant, who had no idea of the history of slavery (past and present), the genocides that shaped and still shape African and world history, and a general historical frame of reference of how geopolitical power relations changed over the last 100 years. Has higher education so sold out to neoliberal market ideologies that we continue to produce employable graduates with no critical sense of location?

 In conclusion: Higher and distance education on the African continent are shaped, in many direct and indirect ways, by international trends and developments. Our responses to these trends and challenges are, however, also shaped by broader geopolitical, economic and environmental trends – many of which are embedded in the legacies of colonialism and an on-going realignment of geopolitical networks and alliances. The list of challenges I shared in this blog is anything but complete or comprehensive – but it may provide readers with glimpses of some of the issues African higher and distance education face in 2013…

Postscript: In my previous blog, I shared my personal approach to blogging. I may have created the (incorrect) impression that blogging comes ‘naturally’ and ‘easy’.  This week’s blog was one of the most difficult blogs I ever wrote. I pondered, phrased and rephrased, deleted, and started over.  This blog was difficult to write due to a number of factors, including the amount of ‘noise’ in higher and distance education and the way my personal identity and insight (or lack thereof) are shaped by my habitus, cultural capital and context. This blog is therefore not an African perspective on 2013 – but one African’s attempt to find patterns and make sense of the world of higher and distance education.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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9 Responses to 2013 – An African making sense of signals and noise in higher and distance education (#etmooc)

  1. Pamela Ryan says:

    Bravo Paul on an exceptionally courageous blog. What hit me was the following statement: We seem to have sold out to thinking in binary terms (where ‘old’ is bad and ‘new’ is good) instead of embracing the fluidity of continuums where ‘old’ and ‘new’ can function interchangeably and appropriately dependent on the context.

    • Thanks Pam – I don’t know why it was so difficult to write – but it was.

      Re your remark – while there are ample examples of new technologies replacing old ones (e.g. cars versus horse-drawn carriages), there is a real possibility that we are obsessed with the latest and the newest and discarding really effective pedagogies and technologies in favour for technologies and pedagogies that are the flavour of the month.

      Thanks for the engagement. Paul

  2. Shana says:

    Great blog to kick off ‘new’ thinking in the New Year (not to denigrate ‘previous’ thinking of course! ;) I can imagine this blog didn’t flow freely. Whilst I agree with Pamela on the binary thinking problem the statement that hit me was: “When square pegs don’t fit round holes, we usually blame the pegs, and we never question the shape of the hole…” With the massification and increasing commoditization of higher ed (at least in the US) clients – rather than students – are insisting that they are right and hence the shape of the hole must change to fit the many different sized pegs. But there is danger in this paradigm since education is not quite the same as other consumer industries…

    SA should perhaps consider the equivalent of GERs or General Education Requirements. Students at most universities need to complete credits across the academy including history, foreign language, business, letters & sciences, etc. irrespective of their field of study. Although this may not avoid the deficit of contextual knowledge, it can’t hurt.

    • Shana says:

      I should add that I have taught online the past 4 years and after a surge in online enrollments have seen a definite increase (at least in our program) in onsite enrollment. Many students have found that fully online – at least in the format that they took it – did not work for them. Whether it was as a result of poor course design or whether it is the medium is open to question though.

      • Hi Shana – good points. Unisa has taken a leap of faith to offer a number of “signature courses” (one in each of our colleges) which introduce students to the broader societal issues and significance of the field. These courses are only offered online with no printed materials and all of them, sans one, are offered on first-year level. With the institutional discourse still obsessed with the discredited notion of the “digital divide”, it will be interesting to see how students experience this highly structured online learning journeys. Like you said, the possible failure or disappointment with this initiative may have nothing to do with online learning per se, but be due to lack of support, connectivity, administrative or tutor issues.

        Without going into detail (maybe later in a separate blog I may), optimizing the potential of online learning (in whatever forms and hybrids) seems to be a done deal in international higher education. In a developing world context, such a move does pose some unique challenges. Paul

  3. Shana says:

    Final comment on the participation of African scholars in ‘international’ conferences. A colleague and I wrote an article a while ago about this that was recently published in Aslib Proceedings. Our focus was on marginalization mostly due to geographic location and prejudice with regard to travel. Let me know if you are interested and I’ll send you the full reference. (Btw, there are many ‘international’ conferences here that are international only because they have representation from Canada, never mind Europe.)

    • Shana, thanks for the support on this one! I think there is a danger where those who found and find themselves on the margins of whatever grouping or discourse, start to embrace and sustain “victimhood as identity.” On the other hand, I really think we underestimate the impact of power networks in international higher education, research and publishing. These networks do not only include but also exclude, based on unwritten and mostly unquestioned criteria and assumptions. I suspect this should not surprise us?

      This raises the issue of “blind review” – and the claim that these processes are fair and prevents unfair discrimination based on gender, race, address, etc. While this is most probably true, the evaluation may be biased if gender, race and address are essential elements in the research…

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