Technology is not enough to solve our education crisis


This article is a response to: To stay in the game universities need to work with tech companies

The author starts off by linking “higher [traditional tertiary?] and professional education”. They are, in both theory and practice, profoundly different processes. Tertiary education is more than just more and more ‘basic’/’lower’ education. It is learning how to learn, rationally and critically challenging outdated paradigms and your fellow students and educators, and ultimately coming up with your own new and innovative paradigms. In South Africa – indeed, throughout most of the post-colonial developing world – tertiary education has collapsed (or is collapsing) for a range of reasons.

At the University of Cape Town (at which both Prof. Hall and I worked for decades as academics and academic administrators), one of the primary reasons for this collapse is the massive enrolment of nominally capable matriculants (in terms of their performance on national final school-leaving examinations), who are actually educationally ‘disabled’ by the tragically dysfunctional South African Basic Education System. This collapse began ‘quietly’ more than 30 years ago when UCT chose to develop “Academic Support “ to “bridge” the educational “gap” between rapidly growing numbers of ‘black’ matriculants admitted from schools run under the notorious Apartheid “Bantu Education System” and those from ‘white’ schools.

Sadly, because of widespread apathy and resistance from academics in Core Discipline Departments across faculties (including those in the then Faculty of Education) to take the lead in this pivotally critical educational task, it was necessary to start from ‘scratch’ and apply what might be retrospectively viewed as a “Heath Robinson” “quick fix”.  This involved the creation of the Academic Support Programme (ASP).

Since, in the 1980s, there were no ‘experts’ in rehabilitating educationally deliberately ‘emasculated’ kids, centralized UCT administrators with little (in some cases no) experience in basic or tertiary education led the ASP and hired ‘outsourced’ contract lecturers with some discipline-related academic qualifications to do the job. With some noteworthy exceptions (especially in the then Faculty of Engineering), ASP failed to produce acceptable numbers of competent ‘black’ graduates in three years. Rather than recognizing this mistake and taking action to force Education-oriented and other Core Departments to take up the responsibility for meaningful academic support, UCT increased the numbers of ASP academics, making some of them permanent staff within a now Academic Development Programme (ADP) owing fealty to Core HoDs and ADP co-ordinators. After several more years, when ADP continued failing to promote the delivery of acceptable numbers of competent graduates in regulation time, it was subsumed into an even more expensive faculty-like structure, the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), with its own self-centred mission. This decision further marginalized ‘black’ ‘ASP’ students.

By now Prof. Hall and you readers may ask: “What the hell does this have to do with the merits of digitally-enabled learning” (DIL) and massive open online courses (MOOCs)?

My answer is that they are being unwisely mooted as a major way through “weathering” the challenge of Academic Support. Before I try to explain this arguably Luddite position, let me say that DIL, MOOCs, Wikipedia, Google and a host of other internet-related ways of acquiring open-sourced information are wonderful. Indeed, before I used the word “Luddite”, I ‘Googled’ it.

Sadly, even if well-designed (and language-massaged and regularly-updated) MOOCs are produced by Nobel laureates and the best and most innovate educators on Earth, it won’t even put a major dent in the educational chasm that exists between school and tertiary education in South Africa. Based on nearly 30 years of personal experience educating and working (and publishing) with ‘black’ students from all over Africa and from interacting with other successful educators who have done the same, nothing short of theistic intervention can replace one-on-one and/or small group, face-to-face interaction, mentoring and counselling to produce ‘black’, ‘white’, brown or ‘coloured’ leaders, especially academic leaders desperately needed to “bridge the gap”.

On its own, DIL can help already educated people become better or more broadly educated and may produce competent technologists and ‘normal’ professionals. It cannot and will not produce individualist, critical thinkers and innovative practitioners and leaders. It’s not “queasiness” that I harbour, but nauseation over the prospects of yet another ‘quick fixed’ Brave New World. “Know how [and] the money” are means, not ends, of/to acquiring meaningful education, ‘Higher’ or otherwise. UCT could spend R1.4 bn far better, e.g. to attract more and better ASP-sensitive educators and financially support more ASP kids comprehensively. Just imagine the primary effect of a DIL solution at UCT: earphone resplendent kids wandering around looking at their Smart Phones while academics sit in front of video cameras!

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Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.