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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