Technology can revolutionise university access

22 Jun 2016 - 09:15
Laptop by SCY

Image: SCY, Creative Commons CC0

By Kyle Rother

In a delicious twist of irony, Forbes (you know, the magazine responsible for counting the world’s billionaires – yes, that shining beacon of equality and social justice) recently published a piece begging the question: “Why has academia not embraced the internet revolution?”

This was in the context of the Open Access movement, where the author argues that, given the web’s inherently democratising role in providing access to the world’s knowledge resources, along with the heritage of the world wide web within the academy (the hypertext transfer protocol – think of those four little letters at the start of every single web address – was originally developed specifically as a means of sharing research more reliably and efficiently), it is curious indeed that most of the research produced at universities remains locked away from public access, behind pay walls erected by corporately controlled publishing firms.

This got me to thinking: if such is true for the second function of the academy – research – surely it is equally true for the first function as well: teaching.

In this, the age of the internet, where the answer to almost any question you can think of is at the end of your keyboard, and you can learn almost any skill you like at the click of your mouse, why is access to teaching from the brightest and best minds kept within the brick-and-mortar of arguably moribund institutions of higher learning? Why is learning being controlled by an increasingly corporate-minded education enterprise, out of reach of the growing masses clamouring at the doors of the ivory tower, hungry for their share of the riches of learning, kept out only by the oppressive weight of history and socio-economics?

If one considers the essential roles that education and access to knowledge play in socio-economic development, it becomes doubly perplexing. An educated and skilled citizenry is utterly indispensable to the growth of the economy, and central to the conditions which enable a society to lift itself out of poverty. Beyond this pragmatism though, education is a basic human right, as enshrined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights: “everyone has the right to education”; and “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality”. Simply put, education enables people to make choices which fulfil their human potential.

All of this has been thrown into stark relief by the recent groundswell of political action on university campuses around the world, from the University of Cape Town (UCT) to Oxford to Missouri. Of course, the awakening of social consciousness has always been a feature of the university experience, but it has taken on a new note of urgency in the “fallist” activities of the past year, stimulated by growing frustration at the slow pace of transformation, and the perceived apathy of institutional executives. Issues of agency, power, and capital have come front-and-centre, and there is a new insistence on accountability, with a sense of reclaiming something inalienable: the right to dignity, which goes hand-in-hand with education, and the empowerment that comes with it.

Returning to the problem: why is education still so inaccessible? Currently, enrolment in higher education in South Africa is at about 18% (hideously skewed by race, of course), and placement at universities is highly competitive. At the same time, escalating costs and lack of a coherent funding arrangement have placed tertiary education beyond the reach of all but a few (and this is greatly exacerbated in a country with the highest rate of inequality in the world).

Certainly, one has to take into account diminishing investment from government (funding for higher education is increasing at only half the rate of inflation), and increasing pressure on universities to streamline operations to make up the shortfall. All of this is well known, and has become well-trod ground in the wake of the zero percent fees increase. But then one really does have to ask: in the face of such austerity, and with a social responsiveness mandate, why are universities not utilising the full range of technology to correct the inequity of access?

Technology has been central to university activities for as long as universities have been around, and – depending on discipline and area of study, of course – academics have always been quick to embrace it. Technology is both an input and an output of the university – it’s a reciprocal relationship, where cutting-edge technology is essential to effective research, and many of the greatest technological breakthroughs have come out of research activity (the example of the internet cited above being one).

But technology has been slow to infiltrate pedagogy. Teaching and learning at universities still happens in much the same way as it did in the time of Socrates. Research has shown that many faculty members are dubious about the real opportunities for revolutionising educational practice presented by technology, and even feel threatened by it – there is real concern that too much disruption to the establishment will put academics out of work.

So, what can universities do to democratise access to education, and how can they leverage the affordances of technology to do so? Many believe the answer lies in the area of open educational resources – teaching and learning materials which have been made freely available for use and re-use, usually online. These resources can exist at any level of granularity and in many formats, from a single video recording of a lecture, to a textbook, or even a whole course. Although the concept of open educational resources has been around for well over a decade (MIT launched its OpenCourseWare initiative in 2001), it only really came on to the institutional radar with the advent of the so-called MOOC (massive open online course) and its rapid proliferation in 2012 – what the New York Times has called “the year of the MOOC”.

MOOCs – as the name suggests – can be seen as a type of open educational resource, although there is some contention around this in academic circles due to the entrepreneurial orientation of many providers and that the materials are not always licenced for re-use. MOOCs are entire structured courses which are made available for any person with an internet connection to take for free online. And people do, often in staggeringly large numbers. The biggest MOOC to date had more than 400,000 enrolments in a single run, with participants from more than 150 countries. The latest numbers show that there are currently about 4,200 courses offered by more than 500 universities worldwide, and over 35-million students have enrolled in a MOOC. Clearly this is an innovation with massive potential reach and scope for delivering learning at scale.

Indeed, very soon after their ascendance, MOOCs were being touted as a possible solution to inequity of access to education in the developing world. The massive nature and quality assured origins of the courses (they are mostly developed by universities) provides an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps in the workforces of developing countries for key skills areas, and there has already been some successful experimentation in this regard.

Of course, there is a dark side, and MOOCs – and the companies which offer them – have come up against fierce opposition, as could be expected for an innovation that poses such a threat to so firmly entrenched and highly lucrative an industrial complex as higher education, on both philosophical and practical bases, ranging from reasoned scepticism to dripping sarcasm. Among other things, they have been criticised for poor depth of learning, low completion rates – as much as 96% of those who enrol in a MOOC will not finish the course, if they actually even do any of it (although many argue that completion is not an accurate indicator of success in the MOOC context) – and only serving leisure students who tend to already be highly educated, older, and male. These are not exactly the kinds of people who require equity.

However, these criticisms have been based on research from the developed world only. Current research from the developing world seems to indicate that completion rates in these regions may be much higher – upwards of 49% – and that MOOC participants are indeed using the courses as a means of gaining specific professional skills and certification, preparing for further education, or finding a new job. While only one study, this research has also found that MOOC participants in the developing world tend to be younger, from more diverse educational backgrounds, and from lower income populations than their counterparts in the developed world, and that women are more likely to complete courses than men. Furthermore, the research is indicating that – given the prevalence of mobile connectivity, and especially the democratising effect it has in the developing world – technical barriers and the digital divide are not as problematic as may have been expected.

Access to infrastructure and connectivity remain the biggest challenges to MOOCs in a developing context. Even so, MOOCs have already found real-world application in extremely challenging situations. During the recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, a MOOC was used to provide on-the-ground training to nurses and clinical officers – in spite of poor connectivity – by downloading the course contents and completing it in a group setting. Equally challenging is the problem of certification, since although the courses are developed by universities, and usually offer some statement of participation or completion, they do not carry credit or offer qualifications – currency in developing economy job markets. Nevertheless, many MOOC takers still list courses on their CV, since even completion is seen as an accomplishment.

Of course there are still deeper, systemic problems with language and cultural imperialism. Since most MOOCs are developed and offered in English by elite Western institutions in the Global North (the Russell Groups and Ivy Leagues of the world), there is an automatic assumption of the superiority of the values of those institutions and their knowledge, with a concomitant marginalisation of other knowledge systems – a kind of Coca-Colonisation of knowledge. Furthermore, this franchising of northern knowledge to the rest of the world through a pre-packaged, pedagogically top-down model is seen by some as a “McDonaldisation of education”.

Some MOOC providers are aware of these issues, and are taking steps to address the imbalances, for instance through massive translation projects (although, more cynically, this may simply be a means of tapping into the huge non-Anglophone markets), and by partnering with southern institutions. There is, of course, a responsibility on these southern institutions to develop regionally relevant and context sensitive content, and there is a unique opportunity to showcase southern knowledge on a global scale. UCT has already started doing this – with a growing portfolio of development oriented but globally relevant MOOCs – and Wits and Stellenbosch are soon to follow.

There is also a responsibility to remain true to the OER origins of MOOCs, ensuring that they can function effectively as a vehicle for delivering quality educational content to those who need it most, by leveraging open licensing arrangements to facilitate access to the course materials and content. Although the courses are offered openly and free of charge, many are still subject to the laws of copyright, which hampers their functionality as open educational resources, by limiting potential for activities such as translation. This can be corrected by sharing the course contents under open culture licences such as Creative Commons, which permit re-use and adaptation of the materials, for instance in a classroom setting. Courses should also be designed for ease of use in low-resource environments, optimised for mobile connectivity and low bandwidth.

If the limitations are acknowledged and accounted for, there is no reason why open education should not offer genuine opportunities for promoting equity of access to higher education. The technological innovations of MOOCs have already shown great potential for accessing huge numbers of students, and with the right combination of appropriate, context-sensitive content, and facilitative design, these innovations can translate very successfully into developing contexts. DM

Kyle Rother works at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the Daily Maverick