Field Stories

Mobile bridges, intra-national divides: research from South Africa

Computer access for every student? ‘Digital strangers’ coexist alongside ‘digital natives’ in universities in South Africa. © Mpume

A great way to find out what does and does not work in eLearning is to listen to those that have been conducting longitudinal research and developing empirical evidence over many years. Researchers at the University of Cape Town, Associate Professor Laura Czerniewicz, director of the Centre for Educational Technology and Cheryl Brown, an award-winning lecturer at the Centre and their team have done exactly this, spending the last seven years conducting research on ICT usage amongst university students in South Africa. Cheryl’s presentation at eLearning Africa 2011 will be part of the new academic stream which focuses on the most innovative and rigorous eLearning research in Africa. Here, David Hollow profiles her presentation.

By Dr David Hollow

Laura Czerniewicz and Cheryl Brown’s ground-breaking research has focused on understanding how and why students make use of technology, both for learning and personal use. In particular, they have examined the contrasting experiences of ICTs amongst university students in South Africa, assessing the intricate relationship between access and use and the varied meanings that technology holds for students affecting their patterns of usage. The two focal issues for the presentation are both hot topics for the eLearning Africa community: the influence of the African ‘digital native’ and the ongoing mobile phone revolution across the Continent.

If you have been interacting with the eLA community for a few years you won’t have missed the conversation about the growing number of African students identified as ‘digital natives’. The term refers to those individuals that have grown up using 21st century digital technologies and are fully comfortable and confident in using them in flexible ways to meet their own learning purposes.

It is a useful term for reflecting the reality of those students for whom digital literacy has meant the integration of technology across the education process. But it is a catchphrase, and like any catchphrase it has the tendency to promote generalisations and ignore internal disparities. [callout title=eLearning Africa’s new research stream]

The eLearning community is full of good ideas! But how do we know which of our many ideas are actually going to achieve the change that we anticipate and desire? Every participant at eLA is interested in finding out what does and does not work in eLearning – but sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort to find out. Thankfully, many eLearning researchers have been wrestling with these issues for many years.

Consequently, the eLA team has created a space where participants can engage with these research initiatives in order to learn from their experiences, consider critical perspectives and be better equipped to tackle future challenges.

This is the purpose of the newly established eLA research stream.[/callout]

Cheryl and Laura’s presentation engages critically with this issue, highlighting the implications of the fact that in universities in South Africa, an equally significant group of ‘digital strangers’ coexist alongside the growing number of ‘digital natives’.

Only 15 percent of young people in South Africa ever get the opportunity to attend university: this is the first divide in the straightforward lack of access to education. On arrival at university, students will encounter the reality of a second divide, an intra-national digital divide, with ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital strangers’ expected to engage in learning within the same classroom.

Traditionally, there has always been a lot of concern about the digital divide that exists between Africa and the ‘developed’ world. This remains a significant challenge, but it is now accompanied by the reality of these equally damaging intra-national divides – in this context experienced in the classroom dynamics of a university in South Africa.

The presence of an intra-national divide, exhibited within the classroom, poses the substantive challenge of how to build the appropriate pedagogical and technical bridges to facilitate effective learning for both groups of students. The presentation will profile evidence-based strategies for utilising ICTs in a way that enables equitable and appropriate access for both ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital strangers’.

Cheryl Brown

Foremost amongst these strategies is the role of the mobile phone, with Laura and Cheryl arguing that it plays a central role in defining and shaping the digital capabilities and habits of South African students. They suggest that it provides a powerful catalyst, enabling those university students previously marginalised from ICT use and labelled as ‘digital strangers’ to begin to make meaningful use of technology for the purpose of education.

The mobile phone is now virtually ubiquitous across South Africa, with 93 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. It is clear that this is having a fundamental effect on all manner of communications and interactions across the nation and, indeed, the entire Continent. However, it remains a significant challenge to progress beyond generic observations and decipher the specific implications and impacts for education.

Longitudinal research studies represent a valuable resource in this context, providing empirical analysis that cuts through the rhetoric and enthusiastic assumptions. One thing is clear: the debate surrounding mobile learning is maturing fast. The vague optimism and speculative talk regarding future possibilities for learning has been replaced by demand for evidence of impact and an increasing focus on learning outcomes.

This shift is a welcome one. Indeed, it is vital if the education potential of mobile learning is to be more fully exploited. We must learn to distinguish between initiatives which facilitate educational transformation and those that masquerade as such but in reality serve more as innovative attempts from mobile providers to increase market share.

These themes all feed back into the overall purpose of introducing a research stream into eLA. The conference has always been a creative space where a diverse community of people share ideas, challenge one another and learn together. The research stream builds on this, remaining practical and applicable, serving to sharpen thinking and practice by engaging with top-quality research experience in the field of eLearning in Africa – enabling us to better answer the key questions of what does and does not work and how we can better assess effectiveness.

Cheryl Brown will present her and Laura Czerniewicz’s research in the session “Research Stream: African Youth and Digital Identity” on Thursday, May 26th, 14:30 – 16:00.


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