Another brick in the wall? Reflections on higher education in the 21st century (#change11)

By Paul Prinsloo


[Image retrieved from 11 January 2012)

In this week’s focus in , Valerie Irvine and Jillian Code invited us to reflect on the future of “brick and mortar” universities in the light of some of the challenges these institutions face such as

  • diminishing funding
  • increasing competition
  • growing prevalence of online programs

The most important challenge, according to Irvine and Code, is the changes in the demographics where the “number of people aged 18-22 are smaller than in previous boom eras”. As a way to address these challenges, (especially the decline in the number of prospective students in catchment areas), they share an approach they adopted at the University of Victoria termed “multi-access learning” through which learners choose the delivery method they want for their studies.

In the South African context, our registration periods have just started and the daily press is filled with pictures of long queues of prospective students hoping for successful admission. I write this reflection in the midst of evidence of an unprecedented growth in students who want to enrol in higher education. Just yesterday a person was killed in a stampede in an attempt to register at the University of Johannesburg (link).

While higher education in South Africa also faces diminishing funding, increasing competition and the growing prevalence of online offerings (often by overseas institutions), changes in student demographics and profiles; we are facing the dilemma of too many enrolments, the majority of which are ill-prepared for higher education.

My immediate context is the University of South Africa (Unisa), a dedicated mega comprehensive open distance learning institution with more than 400,000 students. We are differently subsidised than residential “brick and mortar” universities and our students are spread throughout South Africa and the African continent with some students scattered across the globe.

For many students, Unisa is the last resort due to capping at residential universities, higher admission requirements, access and cost.

In general, many of our students would have opted for “classroom teaching” if they had a choice, if they could afford it, had access to and if their life circumstances allowed for the “luxury” of face-to-face tuition. So many of our students (younger, unemployed) want face-to-face tuition.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there is also still the widespread belief that face-to-face education is of a higher quality than distance or e-learning programmes. There is also the belief (despite contradictory evidence) that distance and e-learning are cheaper options (which explain the different funding formulas).

Back to our context: Though the majority of our students have increasing access to our learning management system the main delivery mode is still printed materials.

In 2012 our Senate approved a number of proposals that may be of interest for the current discussion. These are:

  • Up to recently we designed learning experiences with the emphasis on printed delivery while providing for and increasingly optimising the affordances of e-learning. From 2013 onwards all course development will be designed for e-learning while providing for a range of delivery options, including print.
  • We are in the process of moving towards device-independent delivery but the process is more complex and time-consuming than expected. The main purpose is to make learning available and possible no matter the choice of device from which learners access their learning and learning resources. We would therefore like to provide students with a variety of delivery and support options (with different pricing).
  • There are various initiatives to increase students’ access to the Internet and many of these initiatives will start to bear fruit in 2012.

In our context as a distance education provider, we will never be able to offer full-time face-to-face education to our students. That is one choice students will not have despite the fact that many of our students want face-to-face teaching. On some of our regional campuses there are more than 8,000 students per day using the library and a variety of venues for their studies. While we do offer a relatively extensive tutorial support programme throughout South Africa, most of our students cannot attend these and there is no clear-cut evidence to suggest that students who attend these tutorial support programmes perform better than those who don’t.

So, while there are some differences in the challenges we face in comparison to the situation posed by Irvine and Code – multi-access learning is a reality which higher education faces – no matter what the context.

We should however not underestimate the complexities of “multi-access learning” or giving students some choice on delivery options. Some of the challenges are

  • How we cost the learning – and ensure that the cost is just not transferred to students?
  • How do we ensure quality in a range of learning experiences aimed at achieving the same outcomes?
  • How do we prepare academics and teaching staff for the different challenges and opportunities of these different experiences? What skills-set and more importantly value-set should faculty (and our students) have?
  • How do we manage the fact that students may not know (when they enrol) which delivery option would be optimal for them? How do we manage the fact and cost if students want to change their initial choices half-way through the period?

In this reflection I specifically attempted to address the issue of multi-access learning as proposed by Irvine and Code. There is however the nagging question whether we still need “brick and mortar” higher education in the 21st century….

Is it not time to break down the wall?