learning landscapes in southern africa


The discourse on globalization and the politics of e-learning in South African higher education

Neetha Ravjee, University of the Western Cape
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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," and needs to be problematised. This paper first describes the new ICT-related practices emerging in higher education institutions, and then identifies and compares four 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 higher education change. The first approach is evident in the dominant globalisation literature, which presents an overly optimistic view of ICTs as the "lynchpin" of technology-led, market-driven change in higher education. A second set of approaches appears in the digital divide literature, which generally assumes a neutral view of technology, emphasizes differential access to ICTs, and highlights local contextual issues and particular histories that influence the "role" of online pedagogies in enhancing learning or increasing access to higher education. In contrast, numerous studies of the increasing commercialization of higher education, as well as recent digital divide studies, reject the view of technology as neutral and argue that everyday e-learning practices, structures and policies often operate uncomfortably within the dynamics of market-led change in higher education.

If we understand the above three perspectives as examining ICT in terms of its functionality -- as positive in the globalization literature, as generally neutral in digital divide literature, and as negative in the commercialization of higher education literature -- then a fourth perspective can be identified, which asks different questions, and which does not examine ICTs in terms of its function to some end. I argue that collectively the above three approaches have set the boundaries of e-learning debates in higher education. Together they present a certain understanding of the relation between ICTs and higher education change that hides, under causal relations, the political meaning of the various perspectives.

When we locate the South African literature on decolonising education in relation to these three approaches, then a fourth perspective makes itself visible -- one that asks that we question globalisation and the functionality of technology, and that we re-visit the meaning(s) of higher education transformation. This fourth perspective approaches the relation discursively -- it does not look at causality, but at meanings -- and deconstructs the above three approaches, showing how they are particular constructions of technology and social change presented as inevitable.

In thinking about how to re-imagine current e-learning practices outside of this tight script, this paper supports a framework that both embraces the democratic and pedagogical possibilities offered by online pedagogies, but also problematises the political economy and the cultural politics of e-learning in higher education. I draw from recent empirical studies of e-learning practices which demonstrate the contradictory effects of the globalization logic in both sustaining, through redefining, or displacing efforts to democratize and decolonize South African higher education.