Academic journal article International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology

The Politics of E-Learning in South African Higher Education

Academic journal article International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology

The Politics of E-Learning in South African Higher Education

Article excerpt


The appearance of information and communication technologies (ICTs) at the intersection of competing perspectives on higher education transformation in South Africa suggests that the increasing use of ICTs is not an automatic 'good in itself but needs to be problematised. This paper first describes the new ICT-related practices emerging in South African higher education institutions, and then identifies and compares four broad approaches informing the relation of these new practices to higher education change. The first three approaches conceive of this relationship in terms of the role of ICTs in effecting specific changes in higher education institutions, while the fourth approaches the relation discursively. The final section describes access patterns in 'dual-mode' institutions, and asks whether the emerging trends are redefining the meanings of access to higher education. In thinking about how to re-imagine current elearning practices outside of the tight globalisation script, this paper supports a framework that both embraces the possibilities offered by online pedagogies, and problematises central aspects of the political economy and cultural politics of e-learning in higher education.


The notion of e-learning, commonly understood as 'learning facilitated online through network technologies' (Garrison & Anderson, 2003), has emerged across South African higher education institutions since the 1990s. As in other national contexts, e-learning practices appear together with an entirely new vocabulary, institutional policies and structures, and substantial institutional budgets. E-learning also appears as one of many ICT-enhanced practices in universities from the provision of e-mail, online journals, and networked libraries, to the development of creative software solutions for information management tasks in teaching, research and all sorts of institutional administrative systems for online registration, finance, human resources, student performance data, course evaluations and so on. The new practices have provoked a range of issues around online pedagogies, patterns of access and of exclusion, increasing ICT costs in the context of unequal resources and competing institutional priorities, and the relation of e-learning practices to other institutional interventions seeking to transform the colonial fabric and cultures of South African higher education institutions. It is therefore useful to view ICTs as 'one thread in a complex net of transformation, including historical redress, curriculum transformation, diversity, equity and so on' (Czerniewicz, Ravjee & Mlitwa, 2006: 43).

Organisationally, the emergence of full-scale 'digital universities', such as the African Virtual University (Juma, 2003), which involves more than 30 higher education institutions from 17 African countries, and the increasing use of online learning in contact universities, are seen to blur the traditional distinctions between distance-mode and contact-mode institutions (Butcher 2003: 13-19). Butcher suggests that these kinds of 'dual-mode' institutions are increasing in developing countries. The universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria as two clear examples in South Africa, where the number of 'distance' students enrolled in traditionally 'contact' institutions increased by almost 500% between 1993 and 1999, particularly in the historically Afrikaans language universities (Jansen, 2004: 303).

The emergence of new kinds of global e-learning collaborations involving various combinations of public and for-profit partnerships has resulted in the creation of remote branch campuses for international students (e.g. Monash University, Australia, has branch campuses in South Africa); the formation of consortia, involving universities in several countries offering joint academic programmess, especially at postgraduate level, and the increasing involvement of industry in e-learning initiatives (Beebe, 2003: 72-73). …

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