Digital transformation in higher education: past and present

Student Watching An Online Lecture And Taking Notes In A University Library

The second series of The Internationalist podcast from the ACU explores how the work of universities is being changed by the digital revolution, and how they can use their position to confront the challenges posed by digital technology. With thanks to Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, South Africa; Professor Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University, UK; and Professor Darelle van Greunen, Professor at the School of Information Technology and Director of the Centre for Community Technologies at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa for their contributions and ideas in the first episode, many of which are outlined below.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on higher education around the world over the last year. As universities were forced to close their doors, learning and teaching moved online, with staff and students having to adapt to using technology at a quicker rate than ever before. In this episode, our guests explore the key challenges and opportunities that higher education will face in our digital future. 

For Professor van Greunen, there is no doubt in her mind that, following the rapid shift to online learning, the use of technology in higher education is here to stay. In countries like South Africa, the gap between rich and poor often manifests itself as a digital divide, and during the pandemic technology had to be made available to those who could not afford it to ensure universities could provide equal opportunities for all.  

Professor van Greunen also cites how new technologies, including virtual reality and augmented reality, are opening new and exciting possibilities to students and learners who may not have had access to these before.

‘We now have robotics, advanced materials, 3D printing, quantum computing, blockchain, 5G and all sorts of technologies that are no longer foreign words to the education fraternity on the African continent. I think it is safe to say that the  fourth industrial revolution is now with us. We have all had to adapt and can attest to the fact that our learning experiences, and how we are offering them, has changed forever using these new technologies. There is no going back now.’ - Professor van Greunen 

In addition to bringing fresh approaches to learning into the classroom, the increased use of digital technology in delivering higher education has ushered in a host of challenges – from the additional costs of providing devices to students and overcoming low internet connectivity in rural areas, to many finding online methods more taxing than in-person teaching and learning.  

As Professor Marwala describes, the University of Johannesburg provided additional internet data and devices to students around the country to ensure they could connect to the internet and access online learning materials. 

‘The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide. The digital divide means access to data, it means access to good broadband connectivity and that is not uniform across the board. It means access to devices.’ - Professor Marwala 

Considering the long-term transformations that lie ahead, Professor Marwala also predicts that we will start to see much more virtual reality in our classrooms, and that any university not thinking digitally in the future will get left behind. In addition to reskilling academic staff to work and teach effectively in this new context, universities will need to adapt their curricula to ensure that graduates are adequately prepared for the digital age.   

Of course, for many institutions, online teaching and learning is far from new. Professor Weller was part of the team that developed the Open University’s first fully online undergraduate course in 1999. He recalls that at that time the concept of studying online was considered radical, and many doubted whether online teaching would prove popular. 

‘In the end, we got something like 15,000 students on that course, so it was clear a lot of people did want to study like that. It was quite important in shifting the Open University to becoming much more of a digital university. It answered the question of can we teach this effectively?. And the answer was yes.’ - Professor Weller 

Professor Weller notes that concerns over online teaching being second rate have come to the fore once more over the pandemic. He argues this is partly due to the type of online learning students have been receiving, with in-person lectures being directly converted to online in an emergency pivot.

That’s not the be-all and end-all of online learning. You can create online learning in many different ways and really take advantage of the medium. I found myself pushing back against that kind of perception last year  that the online lecture equals online learning.’ -  Professor Weller 

With many conventional distance education courses, students do not have to be in a certain place at a particular time. They can study at their own pace and group work can be much more spread out, allowing them to find and feed in other resources. These methods enable learners to take full advantage of what the internet offers, rather than simply replicating the face-to-face model.  

Considering how attitudes may shift towards online learning as universities return to face-to-face teaching, Professor Weller warns we may see a backlash, but suggests a blended model is more likely. Although many students have not been keen on online learning, they have found some aspects useful, such as being able to access lectures online and alternative options of assessment. 

‘Now that students have experienced it, they’ll want that kind of flexibility and adaptability built into their normal education. That presents a challenge because universities will then have to operate a hybrid model of being both a face-to-face and a slightly distance education model as well.’ - Professor Weller 

Although it is hard to make concrete predictions for the future, what is clear is that technology is now a pervasive part of our lives. Digital technologies are developing fast, and universities need to adapt and understand which emerging technologies have the most useful educational applications for different disciplines. With machine learning algorithms and big data increasingly shaping our lives, higher education institutions also have a vital role to play in educating people on issues of privacy and ethics in a data-centric society, as well as modelling good practice in the ethical use of technology.

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