Another brick in the wall? Reflections on higher education in the 21st century (#change11)

[Image retrieved from 11 January 2012)

In this week’s focus in , Valerie Irvine and Jillian Code invited us to reflect on the future of “brick and mortar” universities in the light of some of the challenges these institutions face such as

  • diminishing funding
  • increasing competition
  • growing prevalence of online programs

The most important challenge, according to Irvine and Code, is the changes in the demographics where the “number of people aged 18-22 are smaller than in previous boom eras”. As a way to address these challenges, (especially the decline in the number of prospective students in catchment areas), they share an approach they adopted at the University of Victoria termed “multi-access learning” through which learners choose the delivery method they want for their studies.

In the South African context, our registration periods have just started and the daily press is filled with pictures of long queues of prospective students hoping for successful admission. I write this reflection in the midst of evidence of an unprecedented growth in students who want to enrol in higher education. Just yesterday a person was killed in a stampede in an attempt to register at the University of Johannesburg (link).

While higher education in South Africa also faces diminishing funding, increasing competition and the growing prevalence of online offerings (often by overseas institutions), changes in student demographics and profiles; we are facing the dilemma of too many enrolments, the majority of which are ill-prepared for higher education.

My immediate context is the University of South Africa (Unisa), a dedicated mega comprehensive open distance learning institution with more than 400,000 students. We are differently subsidised than residential “brick and mortar” universities and our students are spread throughout South Africa and the African continent with some students scattered across the globe.

For many students, Unisa is the last resort due to capping at residential universities, higher admission requirements, access and cost.

In general, many of our students would have opted for “classroom teaching” if they had a choice, if they could afford it, had access to and if their life circumstances allowed for the “luxury” of face-to-face tuition. So many of our students (younger, unemployed) want face-to-face tuition.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there is also still the widespread belief that face-to-face education is of a higher quality than distance or e-learning programmes. There is also the belief (despite contradictory evidence) that distance and e-learning are cheaper options (which explain the different funding formulas).

Back to our context: Though the majority of our students have increasing access to our learning management system the main delivery mode is still printed materials.

In 2012 our Senate approved a number of proposals that may be of interest for the current discussion. These are:

  • Up to recently we designed learning experiences with the emphasis on printed delivery while providing for and increasingly optimising the affordances of e-learning. From 2013 onwards all course development will be designed for e-learning while providing for a range of delivery options, including print.
  • We are in the process of moving towards device-independent delivery but the process is more complex and time-consuming than expected. The main purpose is to make learning available and possible no matter the choice of device from which learners access their learning and learning resources. We would therefore like to provide students with a variety of delivery and support options (with different pricing).
  • There are various initiatives to increase students’ access to the Internet and many of these initiatives will start to bear fruit in 2012.

In our context as a distance education provider, we will never be able to offer full-time face-to-face education to our students. That is one choice students will not have despite the fact that many of our students want face-to-face teaching. On some of our regional campuses there are more than 8,000 students per day using the library and a variety of venues for their studies. While we do offer a relatively extensive tutorial support programme throughout South Africa, most of our students cannot attend these and there is no clear-cut evidence to suggest that students who attend these tutorial support programmes perform better than those who don’t.

So, while there are some differences in the challenges we face in comparison to the situation posed by Irvine and Code – multi-access learning is a reality which higher education faces – no matter what the context.

We should however not underestimate the complexities of “multi-access learning” or giving students some choice on delivery options. Some of the challenges are

  • How we cost the learning – and ensure that the cost is just not transferred to students?
  • How do we ensure quality in a range of learning experiences aimed at achieving the same outcomes?
  • How do we prepare academics and teaching staff for the different challenges and opportunities of these different experiences? What skills-set and more importantly value-set should faculty (and our students) have?
  • How do we manage the fact that students may not know (when they enrol) which delivery option would be optimal for them? How do we manage the fact and cost if students want to change their initial choices half-way through the period?

In this reflection I specifically attempted to address the issue of multi-access learning as proposed by Irvine and Code. There is however the nagging question whether we still need “brick and mortar” higher education in the 21st century….

Is it not time to break down the wall?

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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11 Responses to Another brick in the wall? Reflections on higher education in the 21st century (#change11)

  1. virvine says:

    Thanks for your post, Paul! I enjoyed reading it. “Multi-access learning environments” (Irvine, 2009) is something I came up with a few years ago and have been striving to realize every since. This is the first term we are delivering course access this way and I hope the next term will have courses with the term fixed into our registration system. I’ve met with them and have arranged the modification (using a system tweak/workaround as opposed to a full $100,000 revision to the system for now).

    I have to say that we DO need brick and mortar. I believe that is not something that will ever go away and I have looked at the financial aspect and believe we can support this delivery mechanism without pushing costs onto students. The math works for me. I also think it will help us to meet the deliverables that our execs are looking for. I’ll get into that more in our presentation today.

    As to what delivery method they SHOULD use? I think people will come in knowing their preference. We could use an inventory that we provide for them to complete to help them.

    How we could prepare faculty?… I can say after one class with a pilot instructor… that preparation was not difficult. I know she had a lot more difficulty when she tried to do an online-only class via moodle. I’ll get into the details today.

    I do think there are a variety of ways in which quality is increased. Please be sure to bring these questions to the session today or for the conversation on Friday. I do hope you can make it!

    Valerie Irvine

    • Hi Valerie – thanks for the engagement and response (#change11).

      Could not make the syncrhonous discussions [sigh] due to time zones, bandwidth at home and the wonderful duties of home chores after a very tiring day at work. Hope you had a great discussion.

      Re the question regarding the future of “brick and mortar” insitutions: I do not necessarily agree with you, but I think we will have these institutions still for a very long time (maybe till the other dinosaurs come back). Your adoption of “multi-access learning” is one of the strategies and responses that I think is an excellent way to approach your specific dilemma, and the dilemmas facing higher education in general.

      Re students knowing what they want, need, can afford and what is appropriate to their learning needs and aspirations: Mmmm, the jury is out on this on. In our context most students are totally underprepared for higher education and the challenges of studying through distance education. Our research indicates that students (almost as a rule) take too many courses (for many reasons – the most important two is the desire to complete as soon as possible and secondly a gross under-estimation of the challenge and an over-estimation of their available time). I suspect that (in our context) students may therefore choose one type of delivery at registration for a specific module and after some time change his or her choice.

      I know systems and processes could be developed to streamline such a process – but with 400,000 students (and counting), too much choice after specific points in the process just becomes unsustainable.

      Re the preparation of faculty and students: Again I think we should not underestimate the challenge [see the post from dryadart]. Some disciplines and foci may not translate so well into different delivery forms. What we have found with my institution’s drive to “device-independent delivery” is that different delivery modes require often require different approaches, input, content, format and… preparation. It is one thing to make today’s lectures available online (paper behind glass) and it is totally another thing to teach the same “content” online in interactive ways.

      And then is there is the issue of ensuring that the quality of these different learning experiences is at a comparable and acceptable standard. Personally I suspect that ensuring quality across a range of delivery forms may very easily become a terrible burden on faculty (filling in forms and ticking boxes). The proponents of managerialism will absolutely LOVE designing processes (and forms) to help us ensure quality across a range of delivery forms in the same course.

  2. dryadart says:

    You ask about preparing faculty – and this at least I can speak to. I am an adjunct at a community college in Upstate NY in the US. I am a teaching artist, that is I am a working artist with a bust exhibition schedule who teaches also. Like almost everyone else who teaches in my department I have had no formal training in education. I am a practitioner. Along with practical Studio classes, I also teach Visual Studies courses and in the last year I was asked to provide those classes online also.
    Our college has ONE educator/facilitator to help us master the online platform our institution has chosen. Fortunately I am pretty tech savvy and after years in the design/print industries I pick up new software quickly. Putting the course up was labourious but not technically difficult for me. But I had really no idea about HOW to design/deliver the material so that it would be engaging for students, or any guidance on how to create community for my on line learners. It has been pretty much trial and error and I for one think this is not very fair to my students who had to make do with my lack while I was figuring it all out.
    Teaching online is much more time consuming for me, and it is difficult to get me, my personality, into those online classes. It is my energetic lecturing style that draws students to my classroom, my evident love of my subjects. I am still struggling to translate that to the online space. I DO NOT feel I was adequately trained by my institution and the training that was available wasn’t designed to fit the schedule of adjuncts who often (mostly) have other jobs.
    Also, there is the issue of isolation – a lack of collegiate interaction when one is teaching online. As an adjunct I have limited interaction with the TT faculty, by teaching online I am even further removed from the intellectual community of my peers.
    As I explore the possibilities of teaching online I am excited and energised, and I have been able to take much of what I am learning and re-translate that into my F2F classrooms. But I wonder how many faculty will be technically prepared to make the transition and even more worrying, how many have the time and energy to really explore ways to translate their F2F classes into effective learning experiences. I am lucky in that my schedule is very flexible since I am my own boss in the studio, but for many educators this is not the case. I don’t doubt that most could become great inline teachers given the time and training – but who is going to compensate them for that?

    • Thanks for the response(#change11). Please also see my response to Valerie Irvine?

      Your response illustrates the dangers and challenges of adopting “multi-access learning” without enough consultation, preparation and capacity building. As I indicated in the post to Valerie – some disciplines and foci translate easier into different delivery modes than others – as you illustrated. Faculty also has different levels of skills and interests – and often there is no “match” between the discipline or focus, the personality and skills of faculty and the delivery mode… It is interesting that we give students the choice to choose which delivery mode they prefer and do not grant faculty the same choice/privilege?

      Having said that, I really do think teaching in the 21st century will (and should) require different skills, values and delivery modes.But it is much more complex than our management structures often assume and plan for.

      One of the challenges we face in my context is how the use of technologies is impacting on “office hours” and how many faculty is complaining about the loss of “family time” or “weekends”. Using Web 2.0 technologies erode traditional definitions of office hours, roles of faculty, roles of students, and also, as you indicate, the way faculty interact with one another.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Reading your post really impressed on me the impact of the challenges we face on passionate, willing, and competent faculty who needs more support and understanding as we prepare for new roles and definitions.

      • Paul – great to get your perspective from South Africa and can understand the clamor for university places in your country.
        Also read @dryadart with interest since the training aspect is a really difficult one. Institutions (not just universities) do not seem to be able to do this well, either due to funding but probably more to do with not knowing how.
        Have found the learning to teach online courses that I have taken online to be fundamentally dull and very time consuming, so these are not the only answer. Handing everything over to instructional designers does not teach the teacher anything much and s/he loses contact with the presentation devices. An “apprentice” scheme may work with a gradually expanding network of practitioners within an institution.
        But these are real challenges in the distance and multi-access learning environments.
        Enjoyed reading all this.

      • Thanks for the response George. Your remarks about the “dilemmas” of teaching online were interesting.

        My experience at Unisa is also that transforming a module/course to a fully online course takes time and delivers some unexpected suprises – both good and bad. You mention the time aspect and the relationship with instructional designers and suggest an “apprentice” model. I totally agree with you that an apprentice model is a possible solution. Faculty cannot “give” their courses over to instructional designers and then receive completed online products back after a while. It is and should be a team effort. Which brings us back to the time aspect – not only for faculty but for instructional designers. In our context where many faculty teach in a second or third language, you also have to add to the equation the expertise and time of web editors. Creating this multi-expert team furthermore requires a balancing act between different interests and fields of expertise.

        “Going online” is therefore much, much more than putting paper behind glass. And once the course is online, then the fun and games actualy start of keeping the course current, negotiating new roles (and “office hours) for faculty and new roles for students.

        Going “multi-access learning” is therefore not for the faintof heart, ot those looking for easy solutions…

  3. lrenshaw11 says:

    Hello Paul

    A group of us from Change 11 are curating a Moocblogcalendar -
    We are seeking your permission to us this interesting post in our calendar.
    Could you contact me at to let me know your thoughts.

    I am really enjoying your posts particularly for the perspective they are providing on life and times in South Africa. Thanks for expanding my horizons….

  4. sharonslade says:

    Hi Paul – your context is very similar in some ways to ours (the Open University in the UK), particularly this year when we are poised to introduce higher fees in the English university sector and are facing a rush on applications this year from students wanting to avoid the higher fees. We are also capping numbers on some modules in response to this. No one is quite sure where we’ll be in a few year’s time, and whether our numbers will be sustained (we’ll still be a lot cheaper than most brick and mortar universities). The dilemma for us is not one of non campus teaching – we’ve never really had that anyway – for us, it’s a similar move toward more and more online only delivery with e-materials and online tutorials. Many of our academics and tutors are a little resistant to this, although attendance at the few face to face tutorials we offer is reasonably low anyway. It’s an interesting time, and I’ll be watching developments at Unisa with interest.
    Best wishes, Sharon

    • Hi Sharon – thanks for the assurance that we are not alone in the challenges we face down south!

      You state that : “The dilemma for us is not one of non campus teaching – we’ve never really had that anyway – for us, it’s a similar move toward more and more online only delivery with e-materials and online tutorials. Many of our academics and tutors are a little resistant to this, although attendance at the few face to face tutorials we offer is reasonably low anyway”

      This is very interesting. Except for many academics and tutors feeling unsure of what “online” actually is and how they will cope; I suspect there is something else here… Many academics and tutors in distance education institutions have studied in face-to-face institutions and somehow think of these as the “gold standard” of education. They often believe that online is a second-best option, often shallower and not as deeply engaging as face-to-face tuition and often also that online teaching is of a lesser quality. You and I know that these believes are far removed from the truth – but knowing this does not make a difference to those who still hold these beliefs…

      Unisa has always tried to accommodate students who wanted face-to-face tutorial support – but it is just not sustainable, cost-effective and scalable. With the digital divide slowly disappearing in South Africa (touch wood) we must really exploit the affordances of technology whenever we can. Addressing the perceptions of staff and students will however require huge efforts – but I think the evidence and the advances in technology are on our side!

      Thanks for the engagement!

  5. Pingback: Another brick in the wall? Reflections on higher education in the 21st century (#change11) | One Change a Day

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