VOICES

In The Age Of Innovation: Universities, Efficacy, And Knowledge

At the core of the education ecosystem must be the idea that African problems require African solutions.

11/01/2018 11:10 SAST | Updated 12/01/2018 09:19 SAST
Getty Images

Universities are often said to be the centres of knowledge production.

In Islam, the pursuit of knowledge is sacred -- so much so, that it is seen as an act of worship.

Society often looks to universities to provide new and innovative thinking. This thinking has the potential to give us a greater understanding of life, and it enables us to perform more optimally as individuals and collectively as a society.

This is why, for aeons, the philosophical underpinning of a university has been based on knowledge production.

South African universities are no different –– academics and institutions are incentivised to produce knowledge and share it with their field and the rest of society.

Sadly, however, this form of knowledge production is not responsive to the challenges of South Africa and is instead geared towards a superficial ranking and misaligned subsidy model.

Craig Blewett, senior lecturer in education & technology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, provides evidence that most published research is never read beyond journals, and some is not cited at all.

Society expects universities to produce innovative thinking, yet we have never critically questioned why universities are not run in the most innovative way.

Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc via Getty Images
An innovative classroom setting that centers on project-based learning in TSTEM (Technology Science Engineering Mathematics) curriculum. | Location: Manor, Texas, United States. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Throughout the world, there is a call to re-imagine how universities operate.

Leading universities have lectures that are freely viewable online as well as distance-learning certificates. Other universities have fully accredited online Masters courses.

Technology has been increasingly introduced into the lecture room and the university system.

Collectively our higher education system in South Africa has not evolved or modernised enough. While this is part of the problem, it also provides an opportunity towards solutions.

However, it is dangerous to see technology as a solution in itself.

Rather, it is a tool that must be used to redesign and create a new ecosystem for how our universities operate. This ecosystem needs to implement the most innovative ideas to solve the most pressing challenges faced by our universities and our country.

At the core of this ecosystem must be the idea that African problems require African solutions.

Ideally, this means that for technology to be a tool for access and success in education, we must place urgent attention on connecting people to the internet –– fast, and at a low cost.

Instead of innovation in research, universities seek to compete against one another for research grants and subsidies.

Access to higher education and technology within these institutions has been elitist and exclusionary. An announcement by President Zuma that education would be free for students from households earning below R350,000 is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction, as it challenges the status quo.

However, this does not create a new ecosystem,nor does it address some of the structural problems within universities. The lack of imagination and creative thinking shows a lack of political will to construct long-lasting solutions that make an impact.

Instead of innovation in research, universities seek to compete against one another for research grants and subsidies. Competition perpetuates and entrenches the divide between universities, whereas a more collaborative approach would create more innovative research.

Corbis via Getty Images
An innovative classroom setting that centers on project-based learning in TSTEM (Technology Science Engineering Mathematics) curriculum. | Location: Manor, Texas, United States. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our current ecosystem, there is a distinct divide in the research produced between historically white and black universities. The establishment of a new state-owned research data warehouse, where all research produced is freely and easily accessible to all South Africans, is a step towards a new ecosystem.

Furthermore, research must be geared towards ideas for solving structural and societal challenges.

With our infrastructure limitations, low throughput rates, struggling basic education and numerous systematic failures in our Eurocentric attitude towards learning, online learning could be used in unique and specific ways to solve our problems in the education space.

From mathematics bridging courses, to language support, to live streaming with experts in various fields -- the possibilities are endless.

The employment of technology and digitisation in the education space is critical to creating an ecosystem that is globally competitive but locally responsive. However, as with any new way of doing things, the most vulnerable can be exploited by the corporatisation of higher education.

The potential transparency that blockchain technology brings should be extended to the entire public purse. What systems are we putting into place to ensure that as taxpayers we know where our money is going?

Our public universities have been partnering with private companies, who pay universities to offer online short courses on their platform, with a good third-stream income for universities as part of the deal.

However, there is something fundamentally wrong with these ideas only seeming attractive when someone -- usually a private company -- makes money from them.

We have seen the Khan Academy take a very different approach to private companies in not having a for-profit model, which has provided free help for millions of people all over the world.

The founder, Salmaan Khan, was asked why he decided to set up the Khan Academy in this way, and his answer was simple: "It felt a little wrong (to set it up for profit), because I wanted our content to be accessible to all people, for a long time into the future... In terms of its advantages, we get goodwill.

"There are 51 people in the organisation, plus thousands of volunteers, and we're attracting some of the best in Silicon Valley. These incredible people come for the mission, not even realising that we actually pay pretty well. So we're getting a calibre I don't think anyone else can."

The success of the Khan Academy in the free education of millions around the world in difficult technical subjects like university-level mathematics shows the power of online lectures and online teaching.

This success led to the establishment of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) –– which are free with no entry requirements, and are not for university credit. MOOCs are forcing universities to rethink teaching.

However, what is needed is innovation for contextually relevant courses that are offered free online, and most importantly must be accredited.

Technologically progressive thinking must be extended to completely eliminating fraud in education. In 2015, the year of #FeesMustFall, the department of higher education and training indicated that 10 tertiary institutions, six universities and four colleges would undergo forensic audits investigating possible fraud related to student funding.

FatCamera via Getty Images
Group of elementary students doing STEM activities in a classroom looking a molecule example

The results of these audits have not been made public, but there is a common conversation among student leaders about the misappropriation of NSFAS funds by administrators. One example is former North-West University accountant Bradley Freeman, who stole R18-million in financial aid.

The potential transparency that blockchain technology brings should be extended to the entire public purse. What systems are we putting in place to ensure that, as taxpayers, we know where our money is going?

Perhaps the power of blockchain is summed up best by Ginni Rometty, the first woman to head IBM, who said: "What the internet did for communications, blockchain will do for trusted transactions."

Since every transaction is recorded on a public ledger, traceable and tamperproof, universities can benefit from the transparency and accountability that blockchain brings –– but this is just one way in which the technology can be a part of the creation of a new ecosystem. (Click here for a five-minute explanation of blockchain technology)

All of the different technologies available can make our universities more open, accessible and transparent.

Sadly, without the political will of those in government and those leading our universities, these remain just ideas.

We often forget the power of teaching –– Mag Ngwira, a Malawian teacher, reminds us with this statement: "I taught the future. As a teacher, I feel like the future of my kids, when I'm teaching them, is literally in my hands. If I choose not to handle it as I should, they might not have the kind of future that they may want."

People with her attitude to education are more valuable than any form of technology, because technology will not change the world –– but it will make it easier for people like her to change the world.

Now, more than ever, universities and government must come together to create a new ecosystem that is globally competitive and locally responsive to the realities of this digital age.

Read part one of this series: In The Time Of Commissions: The Demand For Free, Quality And Decolonised Education