Student computer lab, Soshanguve Campus, Tshwane University of Technology

My review of the Tapscott and Williams article prompted this response from Ms Mandi Maodzwa-Taruvinga who is teaching in the School of Education, the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Mandi is also a Ph.D student within the Wits School of Education. Here in full is her response:

The debate between Tapscott and William’s on the one hand and Tony Bates  on the other concerning the need for and nature of  university reform is both captivating and amusing. It speaks to multiple university realities mainly anchored in the north though strands within the debate resonate in a different tone in southern Africa where isolated pockets of Northern realities might be found.

Tapscott and Williams advance a model of university pedagogy rooted in a constructivist, interactive and collaborative approach. This is an alternative to the dominant didactic conception of teaching with its disciplinary and teacher focus. For most educators especially those within schools of education, this is not new and has been proposed as the ideal for some time now  hence Bates frustration perhaps – that a well trodden discourse is being couched in new terms as though it were absolutely novel.  Tapscott and Williams re-contextualise the relevance of this model to ICTs. They argue that the old industrial model of pedagogy with its focus on student mass production that characterise the modern university, is becoming obsolete and needs to be replaced by “new model called collaborative learning”. Bates observes  that “we have seen a major enlargement of the higher education system, but basically we have not increased the number of tenured professors or even adjunct instructors to maintain the elite system of teacher: student ratios of 1:20, except in the most expensive Ivy League institutions.”

In the “new” thrust of collaborative learning Tapscott and Williams advocates for, there is “an entirely new modus operandi for how the subject matter, course materials, texts, written and spoken word, and other media (the content of higher education) are created.” They believe embracing collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production will ensure a chance for universities to survive and even thrive in the networked, global economy of mass higher education. Tapscott and Williams explain how “collaborative learning has as its main feature a structure that allows for student talk: students are supposed to talk with each other . . . and it is in this talking that much of the learning occurs.”  They further observe that “with technology, it is now possible to embrace new collaboration models that change the paradigm in more fundamental ways”!

Bates retorts, justifiably that “the basic problem is that you cannot use constructivist learning approaches with classes of 100 students or more. … No matter how much you divide the students into self-managing groups, it becomes an impossible task for the instructor to manage, and the quality suffers.”  Bates’ counter argument exemplifies how educators in developing countries are familiar with the discourse – practices germane to collaborative learning and its merits. Therefore, Tapscott and William appear to be stating the obvious and seem oblivious of the fact that large lecturer: student ratio poses a challenge of implementing this model.

It is possible that the Oxford and Cambridge tutorial method if combined with the  technology of the internet has enormous potential  to make students engage in meaning making and construction of knowledge. It is an approaching to teaching and learning which affords opportunities to reflect and develop a voice on the issues raised in lectures.  Indeed, learning dialogue needs to be sustained and social sites might be useful in this regard! However, this calls for more internet connected computer laboratories on our campuses to give students access to ICTs regardless of socio-economic backgrounds.  Even within this orientation, Bates, rightly, asserts that an intense and sustained engagement with students either online or in face-to-face in discussion requires keeping the students numbers down.

Keeping student numbers down is not a morally viable option in countries that have a mandate to open up access to higher education to those previously excluded. The ethics of spending limited financial resources on ICTs in a way which takes away resources that could have been spent on teaching, ensuring wider and genuine access is open to debate.

Rather than viewing  failure to widen access and  participation as a real threat to establishing a grip on higher learning Tapscott and Williams rather argue that “ failure to utilize the internet resources is resulting in universities losing “their grip on higher learning as the Internet is, inexorably, becoming the dominant infrastructure for knowledge—both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people— and as a new generation of students requires a very different model of higher education”.   This argument appears to be premised on the availability and access to Information and Communication Technologies within universities in-spite of their caveat that the pedagogical change they envisage is not “about technology per se”.

The insinuation that the internet poses a threat to universities’ grip on higher education delineates a distinct and different reality of the developed north compared to the largely developing south! In Southern Africa, universities have their student catchment areas large population swathes without access to electricity, piped water or basic transport infrastructure. The majority of potential first generation students come from these impoverished and marginalized communities.  In these contexts, how can universities possibly lose their grip on higher learning. The Southern African reality is different and  poses different set of questions and challenges.

These challenges relate to how we can  strike a balance between providing adequate teaching and learning resources, including ICTs, while providing other forms of support to ensure wide access, participation and high completion rates?  Macgregor in an article in University World News highlights how a major study by the Human Sciences Research Council reveals how “a shocking 40% of South African students drop-out of university in their first year…  Financial difficulties among the country’s large pool of poor black students are, unsurprisingly, largely to blame. First generation students from low-income, less educated families are the most likely to drop out.”

I am reminded of one student on our campus who does not have accommodation because she cannot afford the fees. She has to travel 90km return journey home daily. The home is a shack with no electricity. If she wants to study at night she has to use candle light. The mother has to wait at a four – way stop at awkward times of the late evening to walk her home when she alights from public transport. The condition of her home can easily cause her to drop out. This, coupled with limited state resources, and a desperate shortage of high level skills sets the stage for a different take on the discourse of university reform.

Therefore, when Tapscott and Williams argue that for universities to succeed they “need to cooperate in the launch of a Global Network for Higher Learning”, it strikes a discordant note with the reality on the ground in Africa.  The proposal is viable to the extent that it represents an emergent paradigm in societies which are seamlessly wired between institutions of higher learning and the communities they serve. They further argue that “the combination of the Internet, the new generation of learners, the demands of the global knowledge economy, and the shock of the current economic crisis is creating a perfect storm for universities, and the storm warnings are everywhere”. Surely this paints the globe with a totalising, universalizing, objectivist and homogeneous narrative. The “new generation” of learners they refer to is in fact heterogeneous  not homogeneous. The global knowledge economy has created new contradictions and sharper and more subtle forms of inequality between the wielders of global knowledge capital, located at the metropolis and those operating at the “margins”. The majority of our students come from the socially, economically and technologically excluded and dominated periphery. The challenge for our universities is how to widen university access and engage these students in meaningful learning in ways that will resist and challenge the illusion of inclusion that the internet often brings to both educators and learners.

For most African universities the twin roles of research and teaching cannot be separated as they ought to symbiotically inform each other. Large class sizes are invariably taught through a combination of lectures and tutorials.  Not all universities in the world are offering students’ lectures that can be obtained online for free, from other professors as Tapscott and Williams suggest. Certainly not in Africa! Lectures are still sensitive to the need for relevance and context? While a lot can be said about the potential of technology to enhance pedagogy, this is no grounds for trivialising traditional and conventional arrangements within  university education.  Attempts are being made to “harness the new models of learning” within the context of large classes under very challenging and less than ideal conditions.  ICTs offer new opportunities to extend the discourse – practices of collaborative learning, critical thinking and individualized learning styles but they are not a panacea to the high lecturer: student ratio in Africa. The argument by Bates in relation to developing open content  that  “the limited teaching time of top research professors” should not be used in “lecturing on a regular basis” as this is not the best use of their time is an assertion that also needs unpacking  given the limited resources and skilled manpower available in African contexts.

The realisation that “most faculty do not have the resources to develop the required courseware” brings Tapscott and Williams’ proposal down to earth in what appears like a brief eureka moment.  They suggest that courseware design software “must be co-innovated globally through new partnerships”.  This is a good starting point for a proposal for the use of ICTs in a global network of knowledge. Without this partnership, universities at the margins of network societies would continue to be purveyors of the content and knowledge produced in the north. This perpetuates the necrophilic broadcast pedagogic model that Tapscott and Williams argue against in the collaborative model.

The emergence of the idea of an “engaged university has been an indication that universities and their faculties have long realized that they “cannot continue to operate as separate ivory towers but must work toward collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production.”  What is crucial for the survival of the university is not just “changing the model of pedagogy and the model of knowledge production” as Tapscott and Williams assert.  I would argue from a southern perspective that it is more important to be imaginative about the pedagogy we employ in the face of limited resources and large student numbers.

The challenge of how to teach large student numbers in a cost efficient and cost effective way while giving them opportunities to engage meaningfully with the learning is a daunting one in developing countries. It also points to the need to rethink pedagogy and come up with models that make maximum utilisation of time available.  In thinking about these issues a number of questions arise. Is the Oxbridge tutorial model sustainable when the student numbers continue to increase without corresponding increase of tenured staff?  Will this not lead to the twin problems of lecturer burnout and compromise of the rigour required of the “rhetorical activity of academic knowledge”, an activity “which requires movement between the concrete to the abstract and back again, and a constant questioning of what we know”? Bates (14 Feb 2010 ). This is an educational dilemma!

Striking a balance between widening access and participation, acknowledging the potentialities and possibilities of ICTs and engaging in meaningful learning, knowledge production and dissemination outside the terms of the dominance of the networked higher education society should be a priority. It would be suicidal to let the technology paradigm of the dominant north dictate to us what utopia looks like! In Africa marginalisation and underdevelopment are real and yet we ought to forge ahead with the struggle for mass higher education for the development of “human capital” which has the capacity to learn, including learning through ICTs whatever the odds!  So the raison d’être for African universities ought to be act local and think globally! In this context it is possible to define and  attain excellence!


Macgregor  , K  SOUTH AFRICA: Student drop-out rates alarming  28 October 2007 Issue: 0003 University World News The Global Window on Higher Education

I would be very interested to see if anyone is willing to take up Mandi Maodzwa-Taruvinga’s challenge of how best to strike ‘a balance between widening access and participation, acknowledging the potentialities and possibilities of ICTs and engaging in meaningful learning, knowledge production and dissemination outside the terms of the dominance of the networked higher education society.’

What kind or organizational model and pedagogy would that require?

Are there examples already in place that address this challenge?

And many thanks to Mandi for this very provocative and thoughtful response.


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