Craig Blewett, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Universities are a “thousand-year-old industry on the cusp of profound change”. That’s according to a study that explored Australia’s higher education landscape four years ago. One warning from the report rings true far beyond Australia and all the way around the world:
Warning shots are ringing out across the world. But how many academics are actually paying attention? In my experience as a lecturer at a South African university, we continue to placate the two denizens of academia – teaching and research – in the same way we always have. Teaching remains focused on instruction and content reproduction, while most research never makes it beyond journals.
If we continue to teach in outdated ways, we will increasingly lose touch with our students. Equally, if we continue to closet our findings in traditional journals, we may find our hard work increasingly eclipsed by research organisations that use new media to effectively share their findings.
Lots of attention is being given to new ways of teaching. The great news is that there are also exciting new publishing opportunities springing up.
The right to write
On May 12 2015 I published my first article with The Conversation Africa. One year and ten articles later, I’ve started to view my “right to write” in a totally different way. For more than 20 years as an academic, writing has been more of a duty than a need – let alone a right. Productivity units must be met. Papers must be written and published in approved journals. Even the joy of writing for conferences, which can generate spirited discussion, has been removed. Conference presentations don’t contribute much to one’s chance of promotion.
Of course there is great merit in writing for journals. These have been one of the primary stores of human knowledge, and their peer review process foregrounds credible research – most of the time. They teach academics how to write carefully argued pieces, and the best ones hold us to high standards of quality.
Pragmatically, they also pay. Individual academics and their institutions earn money for each article that’s published in certain accredited journals.
However, the money associated with such journals has created an entire industry that flies counter to a world where sharing knowledge is seen as the right thing to do. Journals are being accused of using the free services of academics to write and the free services of reviewers to edit. They then charge exorbitant prices so that the very same academics can’t even access their own content.
But traditional journals are no longer the be-all and end-all. At least, they shouldn’t be. Open-access journals, blogs, wikis, professional Facebook pages and YouTube channels offer academics a range of exciting, different ways to share their research. These spaces come with a range of benefits.
New media means new benefits
The first of these is the far quicker turnaround time. One of academics’ abiding frustrations with the current publishing process is how long it takes for articles to see the light of day. Research shows that it takes, on average, between nine and 18 months (and sometimes longer) from submission to publication. Writing for new media spaces means that research can be shared within hours or days, opening up the opportunity for discussion, debate and dissent far more quickly.
Your reach is far greater in new media spaces. Some studies estimate that the average journal article is read entirely by only ten people. Tools like Google Analytics can help academics to track their readership in new media spaces. Some sites, like The Conversation, have their own metrics systems – from this, I know that each of my articles is read on average 4,000 times.
Greater reach leads to far greater exposure. This can take the form of comments from academics around the world, invitations to collaborate, and TV and radio interviews. This takes academic research far beyond conferences and journals. I’ve discussed my work on different platforms, including international newspapers, and have been drawn into several local and international research collaborations. Isn’t that sort of work the point of publishing?
New media spaces can also be less intimidating for young, inexperienced academics than established journals are. Getting used to writing, finding your own voice and presenting your work on a public platform is all good practice for journal writing. Universities often offer programmes designed to help young academics develop and strengthen their writing, and these are useful tools as well.
Finally, new media spaces offer a valuable opportunity for feedback, conversation and even correction. They’re not about getting it perfect upfront – they’re about learning, arguing and altering. This encourages the kind of dialogue and idea sharing that any academic should value.
Stepping out of our academic closet
Change isn’t coming to academia – it’s here. And the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still. The privilege of just talking about new teaching approaches and new publishing opportunities has passed. If academics don’t make bold moves to change how we use new platforms and technologies, we ourselves are at risk of becoming irrelevant.
An avalanche is coming
I’m standing on a pristine white slope. The snowcapped peaks rise to touch the blue sky above. It’s a postcard scene. It’s tranquil, and it’s only the faint rumble that heralds what is coming. For most sitting languidly enjoying their drinks on the ski slope, the rumble goes unnoticed. Yet in minutes everything, and everyone, will be swept away! I look up and see a blur of movement on the slope, and the rumble becomes more noticeable. Someone nearby leans over to his friend and says, “I think there’s an avalanche coming.” “You’re right,” they reply, “We should move to another table.”
#RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, it’s obvious that we’re hearing the rumbles of discontent on our higher education landscape, but what’s not as obvious is that these are the warning sounds of a fast-approaching avalanche. It’s not the statues or the fees, that are the issues, but rather lies beneath - a common call, a common need for white and black, rich and poor to unhindered, equal access to quality education.
It’s long been known that education is the surest route to liberation from poverty, inequality and injustice. Yet while we have made huge strides in our country in many aspects, our educational advances have been dismal. And so disruption and protest are becoming the voice of our students seeking change. Yet as Jonathan Jansen, the Vice Chancellor of Free State University, points out, these rights to protest may carry long-term consequences, as it did for the University of Zimbabwe, that destroys the very thing our students are seeking - quality education.
Rearranging the chairs
Moving to a different chair in the face of an impending avalanche hardly seems like a sensible thing to do. Yet this is all that President Zuma’s “zero percent fee increase”, or moving statues, or renaming buildings, is doing. Let’s for a moment imagine not only the zero fee increase, but the goal of free higher education. Does this mean academic staff salaries, which are already low and lag industry levels, will further decline, causing more quality staff to leave?
“Just as investors do not invest their money in chronically unstable societies, so too top academics do not spend their time on serially disruptive campuses. Parents who have choices send their children elsewhere for higher education, including out of the country, leaving behind moribund institutions where the only students and academics left are those who cannot move.” (Jonathan Jansen).
And so in a bid to stem the rising discontent, numerous suggestions have been mooted, such as cutting budgets, finding more funding, linking fees to income. Yet all of these are symptomatic treatments. All of these are seeing us rearranging the chairs when the fundamentals remain the same. We’re simply replicating what we’ve always done, and the demand for quality education will continue to exceed what we are able to deliver. #ReplicatorsMustFall
The rumbles we’re experiencing are not unique to our country. First world countries, such as the USA also have a greater demand than there is supply of spaces at top universities. Yet while our students are excluded based on not having enough money, their students are given credit which saddles them with crippling lifelong debt. Education, the surest route to liberation, remains the sanctum of the wealthy, or those with access to vast sums of money.
The juxtaposition of Revolutions
Yet at the same time as we are seeing a revolution on the campuses of universities, we are witnessing another revolution happening online. While students fight over access to limited resources on our campuses, online quality educational content has become ubiquitous as top universities like Harvard, MIT, and Berkley, amongst many others, provide their content for free. While our universities languish in the shadow of ancient statues and symbols, the online world has seen the rise of a digital behemoth - MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses.
“Massive open online courses are arguably the most revolutionary facet of higher education today. Building on the foundations of existing online courses, these classes are open to anyone, anywhere, with enrollments in the thousands, at some of the best colleges and universities in the country—all for free” (Katie Sluiter).
If we have a demand by hundreds of thousands of students wanting quality education, and world-class universities are providing quality education for free, surely we should be rethinking our higher education system. #InnovatorsMustRise
MOOCs may have their problems, such as the impersonal nature of online, lack of feedback, and no accreditation, amongst others, but we need innovative thinking, not bandaid repairs of endlessly replicated old approaches. We need to rethink how we educate our students before the avalanche sweeps us all away.
Empty Rooms, not Empty Minds
I lecture at a University, and more often that not I see half empty lecture theatres. Sure they’re full to start with, but quickly the numbers dwindle. Schedule a lecture early in the morning or on a Friday afternoon, and you could be lecturing yourself! Why? Students are not learning in the way they used to. Learning has moved from content consumption to conversation around content. Learning has moved from physical places to online spaces. Learning has moved from preset times, to anywhere, anytime. Learning has moved from dry lectures, to engaging media. Yet universities persist with approaches invented by Gutenberg and the printing press era.
We are not going to solve our education crisis simply by dropping fees and statues. We need innovative solutions, otherwise what comes after #FeesMustFall…#EntryRequirementsMustFall, #ExclusionsMustFall, #ExamsMustFall? And why not, if the goal is equal opportunity for everyone to higher education.
We can’t fix our education crisis by simply silicon coating our failing, outdated education institutes - we need to innovate, we need #OutTheBox thinking. This is not simply about installing SmartBoards, and handing out iPads. It’s time for a revolution…not in the streets, but in our minds.
It’s ironic that universities, the bastions of research and future directions, are mired in the relics of the past. It’s time for future thinkers to come together, to rethink, reimagine, and redesign our educational landscape. The avalanche is upon us, but so too is the opportunity to avoid the mistakes of other countries. We already have a generation who not only increasingly have access to technology, with the majority of South Africans having at least on mobile phone, but a generation who also knows how to use this technology - as exhibited in the social media avalanche they created in the current crisis. Let’s harness this potential and forge new directions for higher education in South Africa. #InnovatorsMustRise
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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