Photo Izak Smit, Director of the Center for Innovative Educational at Cape Peninsula University of Technology at Cape Town, South Africa

Technology as a Response to Student Protests


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jul 17, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Over the past three years, a highly volatile situation has been developing in the higher education sector in South Africa. In September 2015, a movement that was started by students from multiple universities gained traction and worldwide attention, as their slogan with the hashtag #FeesMustFall went viral. Since then, protests have disrupted academic activity repeatedly and for extended periods of time. This situation is strongly connected to the unemployment rate in the country, one of the highest in the world. Currently, about 27% of South Africa’s population is unemployed, with approximately 56% of them under the age of 30. The country also has more people receiving social grants than those employed. As a result, there has been an enormous pressure on younger generations to get a specialized field qualification.

Along with other destabilizing political events, as well as rising tuition costs, student unrest has prevailed. When students find themselves in such a complex situation, with a lack of access to education and a high unemployment rate, they may not be able to continue with their studies. Alternatives must be found and, as Izak Smit, director of the Center for Innovative Educational Technology at Cape Peninsula University of Technology points out, the disruptive character of those protests can be seized as an opportunity to make way for the adoption of technologies, which can support the academic process.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) is the only university of technology in the Western Cape and is the largest higher education establishment in the region. With more than 34,000 students, Izak and the CPUT are faced with a great challenge. With the initial protests, students who were supposed to be finishing their studies at the end of 2015 had to wait an additional term due to class and academic activity disruption. At the time, CPUT hosted all of their Blackboard Learn data locally. Some protesters located the power source for the servers and managed to disrupt services. In early 2016, the university migrated to a hosted solution to avoid similar events in the future.

Students who were not able to complete their courses in 2015 due to the protests had access to online assessments to make up for lost classes. However, online activity slowed down as regular ‘talk and chalk’ classes were resumed, and academic activities carried on normally. September 2016 was going as expected when the second wave of protests hit CPUT. This time, with more violence and even arson, some buildings on the university’s campus were burnt. This was, according to Izak, the tipping point for those at the university who had not yet seen the possibilities of online learning. Eventually, after seeing what was possible following the initial implementation in 2015, those inside CPUT ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ for good.

It is important to keep in mind that CPUT has a blended learning approach, not a fully online one. As a result, these events presented an opportunity for university administrators to assess the utilization of online resources, including the use of technology in teaching and learning. Not only does a blended approach help to mitigate the impacts of severe disruptions, but it also represents an improvement in education accessibility, engagement, and quality. When physical facility improvements need to be made after protests, that requires time, effort and costs to cover damages. Therefore, technology serves as a valuable solution in a challenging environment.

Izak also reflected on the most common generalization made about technology: that it ‘saves the day.’ This is, without a question, false, as CPUT’s vandalized servers demonstrated. However, in a blended model, technology can be a lifeline for those who have the will and need to continue to teach and learn in the face of unexpected events.

Disruption can be positive when it serves as a driver of change, and in CPUT’s case, it resulted in technology adoption and improvement. As a result, it also became necessary to adjust pedagogical methods in order to suit the new learning approach (online learning). To this effect, CPUT’s instructors were assisted with learning design, and most of the training was done through Blackboard Collaborate in order to reach all instructors displaced during the protests, or those located far away. As one might imagine, time was of the essence, with thousands of students stranded in-between terms without having finished their courses. This is why what CPUT managed to accomplish was no small feat: they went from 536 instructors and 20,000 students enrolled in the online platform at the end of 2015, to 1037 instructors and 33,400 students as of June 2017.

Nevertheless, this transition was not without its challenges. Although the country’s national government has a policy on open and distance education to broaden access to education and rely less on classroom time, some students might not have a proper internet connection or bandwidth. Even if they are not participating in violent protests, they are sometimes forced to leave their studies due to connectivity issues. To this end, authorities and some internet providers are working together to provide free WiFi hotspots or broadband access for students to have access to online learning platforms and continue their studies.

Photos by: AFP – Rodger Bosch