Laura Czerniewicz is the Director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Czerniewicz researches the equality of access to higher education and the technological impact of eLearning. Czerniewicz reveals some significant results of her research into the marketing and digitalisation of knowledge and the insights she has for eLearning Africa.
1. What do you see as a few of the major barriers in Africa to open learning and getting knowledge into the heads of people who need it the most?
There are many obvious barriers to education, not least of which being poverty, hunger, long distances from classrooms etc. Within teaching and learning contexts, serious barriers often take the form of inappropriately designed educational experiences framed by a deficit model. Learning experiences need to be premised on an acknowledgement of the resilience and powerful literacies students bring into their learning experiences. Good design, proper scaffolding, suitable feedback, important elements to open up powerful learning encounters and knowledge building.
2. Your work is about breaking barriers between all kinds of groups. In essence, you work on access to information, to education. Has digitalisation helped this along and actually benefitted those who are marginalised?
There is a constant tension between how digitisation enables openness and closure, inclusion and exclusion. The affordances of the digital can be appropriated for very different ends. Yes, they can certainly be exploited to benefit those who are marginalised. An excellent example of this is cell phone providers zero rating access to educational content, and in many African countries zero rating access to Wikipedia. This is exciting in Africa, where cell phone ownership is widespread but data is expensive. There needs to be much more of this, as access to knowledge is a public good.
3. Tell us about your university’s initiative called Knowledge Co-op. What have the challenges been and can this help African academics?
The Knowledge Co-op is an outstanding academic-civil society initiative that is structured to ensure that academic research is framed and determined by real-world challenges. NGOs and other parties describe a research issue that they need addressed, and postgraduate students under supervision undertake that research for them for their dissertations. It works really well and enables community partners to own and participate in the research in a unique way. One challenge is that postgraduate students have particular requirements, a kind of academic grammar one might say, which they have to use for degree purposes, which may not be of interest to the community partners, so the research may need to be written up in different ways for different purposes. In each project facilitated by the Co-op, the findings are made available to the community partner in a non-academic format that they specify.
This model has been found in many places to be a powerful way of connecting academia with civil society, ensuring that the knowledge agenda is firmly set by real social needs. It has great potential for solidifying these relationships all over Africa.
4. This is a pan-Africa conference, what are the necessary steps that can be adopted so all these countries can be united in their education and technology sectors to really propel their entrepreneurs and future leaders forward?
Create enabling environments for innovation, reward and incentivise through light touch state steering to ensure that inclusive agendas are prioritised. Examples would be the possibilities inherent in open education, as well the possibilities of commons-based business models. There are lots of examples [of these business models] in the book ‘Made with Creative Commons’ by Pearson and Stacey
5. You’ve been doing research with Leeds University about the “unbundling and rebundling” of higher education. Specifically, you’re looking at privatisation, digitalisation and the marketing of education. Can you unpack some of your findings?
The project is looking at the intersection of digital technologies, marketisation and unbundling in higher education. The focus in the first phase has been on mapping the terrain and on the views of decision makers in South Africa. The work then extends to considering the views of private providers, as well as academics and students, and looking at the context in England, too.
Preliminary findings emphasise that marketisation and digitisation cannot be separated from the context of higher education, especially the austerity climate, that is, the overall reduction of state spending on higher education over several years. For many universities, this has resulted in the need to turn to “third-stream” income and an exploration of the possibilities of partnering with private providers with the hope of generating additional income through this route. A number of universities have, for example, formed partnerships with external providers to offer fully online courses and programmes. This is entirely new and was not possible just a few short years ago.
Not surprisingly, there is a great concern as to whether these new forms of provision will ameliorate or exacerbate inequalities in the system. Will particular universities and particular students benefit while others get excluded? And of course, it is critical that these new forms of provision do not undermine the public missions of public universities.
6. What does this concept of “third-stream” income mean in the African context?
Education is unique, it can never be a market like other markets. The social and public role of a university will never disappear; very often the pressure on third stream income is precisely to subsidise those essential aspects of education which will never (and should never) generate surpluses. Education is not simply about the benefits to an individual, but to society as a whole.
7. Corporate interests are also influencing the education sphere — it’s where they get their workers. Is there a good middle way between institutions of higher learning versus those offering short-term courses (the ones that promise a well-paid job soon after graduation)?
There is an entire ecosystem of teaching and learning provision with an increasing number of providers and stakeholders involved. Each of these has a different focus, purpose, and outcome, and we are likely to see more granular, flexible, and porous offerings, especially with the rise of microcredentials. While offerings that have explicit links to the workplace have their place, the need for university offerings (especially in the humanities) that develop general critical thinkers and deep generalists (rather than being focused on specific professions) will not cease to be needed. The terrain is becoming more complex rather than less so.
8. eLearning Africa is about improving access to quality education in the digital sphere. What excites you about the potential of the Continent and how it relates to your work?
eLearning Africa provides an invaluable space for important conversations, collaboration, networking and planning. What is especially exciting about eLearning Africa is the Global South perspective that is brought to bear on international issues, as well as the opportunity to shape international agendas. It is about agency, not simply being recipients but about being in charge of our own educational destinies.
eLearning Africa 2018
The eLearning Africa 2018 conference will be hosted in Kigali Convention Centre, Kigali, Rwanda on 26th – 28th September 2018.