Researcher practices in context: a framework

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Like many others, I subscribe to the fine discourse of open networked scholarship with its associated values of participation, engagement and transparency. I hold dear the possibilities of existing unequal forms of legitimacy and power relations in global knowledge production and dissemination being challenged through the enabling affordances of networked technologies.

Yet scholarly practices are firmly grounded in local realities. It was Castells, almost 20 years ago,  who described the opportunities and contradictions of a networked world so well when he said,  “Power, money, and information are primarily organized around flows which link up distant locales, and  unite them in a shared logic” . At the same time he noted “the variable geometry of networked integration and switched off exclusion of the network society translates into the juxtaposition between two spatial forms/processes: the space of flows, on the one hand, the space of places, on the other hand.” In short, “People still live in places, and construct their experience, their meaning, and their political representation around these places”. (Castells, 1996:469)

It is this juxtaposition that motivated us to explore changing researcher practices in Africa. Under the auspices of the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme, the locally shaped – scholarly communication practices of scholars in four sites were surfaced; Namibia, South Africa, Mauritius, and Botswana. Scholars shared their experiences in thoughtful interviews with Cathy Kell, and illuminated the nexus between global trends and local realities.

How could these practices be described across contexts in nuanced ways that show the subtleties of social relations, users/audiences and forms of communication? A framework was developed using the heuristic of the research cycle with indicators at every stage. At the same time, researchers interviewed worked in different disciplines and it became clear that it would be more useful to categorise their research by the types of research projects undertaken with their associated practices rather than by disciplinary taxonomies. These five types were developed using Using Boyer (1990),  Griffith (2004)  and Cooper (2011).

The SCAP paper Changing Research Communication Practices and Open Scholarship: A Framework for Analysis  by  Catherine Kell, Michelle Willmers, Thomas King and myself has two parts: the first describes the framework and its foundations, locating these in the broader literature. The second applies the general principles developed to the 72 research projects which were described in the interviews (with the proviso that research projects was understood in a loose sense) . It is interesting that only ten of the 72 projects fell into the conventional “discovery research” category; sixteen could be categorised as “interpretive “. The many papers in the “applied” category are of  particular significance in the light of the role of consultancies in African research.

As we observe in the paper, it was striking how importance context is – the history and culture of each of the four institutions studied, and to a lesser extent the history and culture of the countries in which they are located. Even though these universities and the basic features of the types of research they engage in and research cycles that they go through share a  number of similarities in terms of overall geography, history and mission, their differences are sufficient enough to create significant diversity in how their scholars respond to the research endeavour. The framework provides a way of surfacing these differences while sharing rich experiences across sites.


Boyer EL (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Boyer EL (1996) The scholarship of engagement.

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society.  Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: 469.

Cooper D (2011) The University in Development: Case Studies of Use-Oriented Research. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Griffiths R (2004) Knowledge production and the research–teaching nexus: The case of the built environment disciplines. Studies in Higher Education 29(6): 709–726

OERs and MOOCs: untangling “open”

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During Open Education Week, we at UCT were not the only ones taking the opportunity to discuss the differences and overlaps between MOOCs and OERs. Using a matrix I have previously showed the open content, online learning and MOOCs in terms of a range of dimensions including access, licensing etc. In our talk on OERs and MOOCs  my colleague Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams and I focused on bringing together the idea of degrees of openness as well as the continuum of formal-informal along which MOOCs lie as a type of online learning.

The discussion hinges on what is understood by openness. In the MOOC world, open means free access to join a course without any required educational or competence requirements. In a paper under review, we (colleagues Andrew Deacon, Janet Small, Sukaina Walji) have described the course provision landscape in terms of curriculum integration, and have suggested that MOOCs are in the online semi-formal to non-formal space, as illustrated here.

In the OER world, openness is more tightly aligned with legal openness and the permissions to use which have been assigned through various kinds of licenses.

MOOCs may be open in terms of access and lack of fees, but that does not mean they are legally open in other ways. Within MOOCs there are degrees  and types of openness in terms of content – learning resources and user-generated content being different, platforms, and the course itself  as a whole.

One could of course add other axes of openness- pedagogical openness for example.

With these two heuristics, we can map types and degrees of openness on the MOOC landscape, as per the following hypothetical example:

Mapping MOOCs’ openness

“Open” is deceptively simple, and, as in the case of OERs and MOOCs, it might mean quite different things. Worth untangling.

MOOCs: should the rest of us bother?

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We all agree that the Year of the MOOC is over and that the promises of cost effective new business models to solve deeply entrenched problems are turning out to be hollow. Turns out that MOOCs are serving an existing over-subscribed group of male graduates from the global north and that access to and for the world’s poorest countries has been low. Turns out the quality is as good or as bad as any other course.  (And we won’t talk about completion rates!) With the discourse largely about business models rather than pedagogical models, should we not shrug and turn away?

When one of the Founding Fathers declares defeat and says that MOOC are not a good fit for struggling students, and another says that MOOCs should get rid of “the massive and the open” should those of us dealing with harsh, resource-constrained, and historically complex educational systems and extremely diverse student bodies not just say “We told you so” and get on with slaying our dragons slowly and systematically as we always have done?

We weren’t the ones innovating in Canada and we didn’t get the capital to venture into something new and different, so should we even join the bandwagon at all?

Actually, yes.

MOOCs have been the lightning rod that draws attention to a whole lot of inter-related issues about online learning and about open education. They have become a kind of shorthand for all sorts of complicated educational matters (what we call “ingewikkeld” round here). So this is why I think that educators, researchers and universities in developing countries, and in the less well resourced parts of developed countries, should be thinking about and planning and conceptualising MOOCs.

  • Because engaging with MOOCs gives us an entry to talking about online learning and about learning and curriculum design with people with whom we have not had those conversations before. And many of us who have been working in the trenches know  a lot about these teaching and learning issues.
  • Because we consider MOOCs as one possibility in a whole basket of emergent online possibilities including open boundary courses, wrapped MOOCs, SPOCs and whatever else is coming into being as we try things out.
  • Because we are excited about the  pedagogical possibilities and look forward to experimenting in local conditions.
  • Because we do want access to all that interesting new stuff that is being made available freely online for those of us with the capacity to access it. It’s great being exposed to so much stimulating material so easily. And preferably we would like it licensed in ways that would allow us to adapt for local use.
  • Because we are fed up the global north’s domination of online content and  fear that MOOcs will only make that worse. So we want to get our own resources online.
  • Because we know that there are numerous topics – from archaeology to health to literature – of general international and niche interest that we are in the best position to teach and make widely available. (And it depresses us that the first MOOC on African cities is being offered by a French institution.)
  • Because we take that third university pillar of social engagement and community service really seriously. The development mission is a genuine imperative for many of us; MOOCs and other forms of online learning and open learning can serve that commitment very well.
  • Because being a late adopter means we get to benefit from some real and robust research, not just the hype of the early days.

We don’t believe in quick fixes, and we don’t think that MOOCs are the answer. But we welcome the opportunity to experiment and to add more strategies to our efforts to address local educational challenges.

Image: Giulia Forsythe, CC BY NC SA 2.0


Clarifying confusion: open content, MOOCs and online learning

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The arrival of MOOCs , especially the so-called X-MOOCs from the elite universities of the USA and the rest of the world,  has provoked conversations in traditional residential universities which simply did not take place on a broad scale before. In particular, the issues of online learning and of open content have found their way into senior academic fora, and the indabas of senior management layers of universities. Of course, neither open content nor online learning are new per se, but they had not reached mainstream conversations in most residential universities, let alone the elite ones.

Whatever else one might think of MOOCs, they are to be welcomed for making these credible and legitimate issues to discuss. However, because they have all arrived at the same time in a sense, there is some confusion about the concepts and the parameters of what each of these issues refer to. I have even heard all of them described (more than once) under the umbrella term of “open source” as in open source content, open source courses and open source learning.

So here is a summary of these three overlapping areas showing their similarities and distinguishing elements.

I started writing a narrative to accompany this table, but think it is self-explanatory! If it is not, let me know :-)


Educational technology for equity

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has published their first ebook, Rebooting the Academy, which arose from the interviews they did for a piece earlier in the year on “tech innovators”. The essay I wrote on educational technology for equity was declared “too academic”, and definitely no footnotes allowed, which was an interesting exercise in genres and attribution, from my perspective! So here is the original piece, footnotes and all…

Whose interests does educational technology serve? For which ends is it pursued and which of the current trends are most relevant to advancing the equity agenda?  How can equity be kept foregrounded when universities globally, and in Africa in particular are under serious pressure? The current turmoil derives from a complex interplay of factors including the massification of tertiary systems, the impacts of information and communications technology, globalisation and the rise of the knowledge economy.[i]  Permeating the challenges in universities are issues associated with participation, throughput and successful learning.  Using the South African context as a focus, this piece considers how some current trends in educational technology can contribute to addressing these issues.

Challenges within the system- South Africa
The digital divide often refers to discrepancies between countries or continents, but it is salutatory to remember (as Castells reminds) of the pressing divides within countries, within communities and even within single universities. Digital divides are of course, closely related to social divides, and South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Indeed, a 2012 report states that South Africa has the most unequal income distribution in the world, at 63.6%[ii]. The poorest 20% of the South African population accounts for 2% of consumption: the richest 20% of the population account for 66.5% of total consumption (Prabhala 2005).

The social divides permeate the education system where there is a serious disparity of learning achievement by socioeconomic status and geography. At grade school for example, higher reading scores are attained by pupils predominantly from the wealthiest SES (socio-economic status) quartile in urban schools[iii]. At the university level, an examination of the student age group demographics is sobering. Of the total enrolment in 2005 as a percentage of 20-24 age-group: white students comprising 60% while black students formed 40% [iv] (while in the general population, white people make up less than 10%).  The inequity of outcomes is especially sobering. Less than a third of students (30%) graduate within five years, and indeed it is estimated that under 45% of the intake will ever graduate. In most residential university programmes, black graduation rates are under half of those for whites, and there are fewer black than white graduates. The net effect is that under 5% of the 20-24 year-old black age-group are succeeding in any form of higher education[v] (Scott 2009).

Given the extent and deep structural roots of these problems, it is clear that there are no quick fixes, and that the underlying social and economic causes of inequality, poverty and unequal development must be addressed for profound change in education to occur. Within the education system itself, multipronged responses are required across different dimensions of which technology-enabled interventions are important though they are not the cure-all they are sometimes touted to be.

The digital
Having sounded these cautions, it has to be recognised that technology pervades the entire system. It is both a cause and a consequence of change in higher education as increasingly the digital infiltrates everything. This means that the foundational characteristics (the affordances) of the digital permeate the three key value points for learners in universities enabling the reshaping of:

  • content (access to and apprenticeship to disciplinary knowledge, content creation) ;
  • interaction (between peers, between students and academic experts through pedagogy, feedback and engagement) ; and
  • accreditation (summative evaluation and certification).

Opportunities in Current Trends
Which of the current digital trends are relevant, especially to students on the wrong side of the divides, and particularly those who struggle with participation and success? Three in particular are germane and intersect in ways which previously were not possible:

  • the move to openness (in general, and in this instance to open content);
  • the growth of rich media content (especially that which is openly available); and
  • the ubiquity  of cell phones (with the concomitant possibilities for mobile learning, increased interaction, content access and content creation).

Together, these create synergies with potent possibilities.

Open & media-rich content
The move towards openness in higher education is an opportunity for increased inclusion, and expanded access as well as better pedagogy and improved success rates.

At the simplest level, the availability of open (freely available, re-usable)  content is of obvious benefit to students for whom the costs of textbooks is actually and relatively too high (one South African study calculated that the cost of a year’s learning materials  was  as much as  one third of the cost of tuition[vi]). The move to making and sharing content intrinsic to Web 2.0 blurs the line between the formal and the informal, and also means that content which would not be published by commercial publishers is made easily available online, increasing the pool of suitable local case studies and local educational resources.

The rise of rich media is also obviously advantageous to students, for the learning process and for those at an educational disadvantage.  There is an explosion in video (user uploads to YouTube alone hit one hour per second in March 2012 , sixty hours per minute[vii]) and of this video a substantial sub-set is of educational value. There is a concomitant rise in audio and podcasting, as well as animations and interactive visualisations (e.g. representations of science “big data” and rich resources from the digital humanities).  The value of the “audio-visual” is well documented in education, creating opportunities for interactivity, modelling, improved learner engagement, and support for different types of learning “styles” and so on.

What is new is the prevalence and indeed the assumption of this rich media as a matter of course, as well as the fact that much of this content is freely available. The mainstreaming of open licensing is a great step forward in this regard. A recent example is laudable – the inclusion in July 2012 of Creative Commons license for YouTube uploading, which was launched with a CC library featuring 10,000 videos [viii].

However, an obvious question is how those without computers or connectivity, or those without adequate bandwidth, benefit from and contribute to this abundance of online content?

Cell phones in South Africa and beyond are a great opportunity for three reasons: ubiquity, interaction and content.

There are more cell phones in South Africa than there are flush toilets[ix] . Mobile cell coverage is at nearly 90%, and there were 101 mobile cell subscriptions per 100 people in South Africa in 2010, according to the World Bank[x]. Cell phones are ubiquitous across all strata of society, especially the student population[xi] where they are highly regarded, and where they are prioritised on limited, stretched student budgets.

Of course, relative cell phone functionality has to be taken into account. Yet even basic phones offer opportunities for interaction, communication and some content creation. A review of the many experimental projects in mobile learning notes that SMS (texting) remains key [xii] and examples of SMS cases for learning abound. These include the use of mobiles for interaction and feedback in large class interaction[xiii], as well as SMS / web integration communication tools for questions and answers in online learning environments[xiv].  One of the numerous successful mobile maths m-learning projects is the Dr Maths Project which uses both SMS and the web for students to interact with volunteer tutors[xv].

At the same time, mobile web access is rising rapidly across the population. Even in South African rural areas, it was calculated that 27% of rural users were browsing the Internet on their phones in 2011[xvi]. Amongst the student population the proportion of cellphone users with web access is much higher. At the University of Cape Town, a 2011 investigation found that 85% of respondents to a survey reported owning smartphones. At the country’s large distance education university, with 350 000 students across Africa, 82% of online respondents and 55% of paper-based respondents reported owning a phone with Internet access. This survey concluded that the mobile phone is a key entry point for Internet adoption, narrowing both and the data gap and being increasingly used to access the Internet by all students[xvii] .

Obviously mobile internet enables increased access to online content. Some open resources are designed specifically to include mobile devices, with local examples being Siyavula (open content endorsed by the National Department of Basic Education[xviii])  as well as cell phone novels, delivered in chunks (eg Yoza – Another exciting example is the Wikipedia partnership with Orange Telecom which is waiving data fees, thus allowing its 70 million cell phone users in Africa and the Middle East free access to Wikipedia[xix]. In many other cases, research shows that students take matters into their own hands, by, for example, independently recording (and sharing their lectures), so that they can listen and repeat in their own time later[xx].

Mobile-enabled content creation is becoming more common (the 2011 AMPS survey records the making of video recordings on cell phones at 22.5%) which bodes well for righting the imbalances of content online, where certain communities and countries are severely  under-represented. And from a learning perspective, these practices support the known value of “learning by doing”. Other sim-enabled devices especially tablet computers offer even more potential for content creation and access; interestingly tablets are currently the fastest ramping mobile device globally.[xxi]

While there are relatively few tablets presently in South Africa (estimated at 325 000[xxii]), it is reasonable to assume that, as elsewhere this will increase, given the development of tablets as low in price as $35[xxiii]. Solar-powered tablets are especially relevant [xxiv]  where electricity is either lacking or intermittent, but sunshine is not. Such devices have the ability to house entire libraries of rich media for students with serious constraints accessing learning resources of any kind (lack of books is the dominant problem in schools, according to Statistics South Africa[xxv]). As open content becomes mainstream and emergent open etextbooks models (such as OpenStax, and Flat World Books) become more widely known, it becomes a realistic possibility for students to have access to extensive content at very low cost.

At the same time, there are risks and dangers. New technologies enable closed-down practices in ways that old technologies do not – think of libraries enabling sharing of books while licensed downloads of ebooks do not. Ground-breaking developments in new devices, online environments and platforms are expensive and may only be available to those who can afford them, creating the possibility of new divides. There is a real danger that innovations in educational technology will primarily benefit those students who are already advantaged with the economic and cultural capital to exploit them and in a good position to experiment with innovation.

However, based on the open-web and premised on emerging digitally-mediated social practices, the key trends of openness, mobiles, and rich media coalesce to enable numerous opportunities for education.  Innovative experiments and case studies point to ways of engaging with the content and interaction at the heart of pedagogy and the curriculum. These all are cause for optimism in contexts where participation and success, and digital and social inclusions, are major imperatives.

[i] Altbach, P; Reisberg, L & Rumbley, L 2009, Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an academic revolution. Report for UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education

[ii] See

[iii] Smith, M (2010)  Which in and out of school factors explain variations on learning across different socio-economic groups: finding from South Africa,  EdQual Working Paper No.24, at

[iv] A closer breakdown of the figures is even more sobering: Indian- 51%, Coloured – 12%, Black/African 12%. See Scott, I (2009) from which this section is extracted. Scott, I, 2009 Towards an Agenda for SoTL in Africa? International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Vol. 3, No. 1

[v] First-time entering student cohort studies , Letseka, M. and Maile, S. (2008). High university drop-out rates: a threat to South Africa’s future. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council,   and Scott, I., Yeld, N. and Hendry, J. (2007). A case for improving teaching and learning in South African higher education. Higher Education Monitor No. 6. Pretoria: Council on Higher Education. Also

[vi] Prabhala, A (2005) “Economic Analysis of Income and Expenditure Patterns in South Africa: Implications for the Affordability of Essential Learning Materials,” A2LMSA working paper, Johannesburg.

[vii] Doctorow, C 29 March 2012,  User uploads to YouTube hit one hour per second, ,

[viii] See

[ix] According to AMPS at, in 2010 25.1 million adults (15+) personally owned, rented or had use of a cellphone. 20.7 million had a flush toilet in the homes or on their properties.

[x] See World Bank Data

[xi] Specific details of cell phone ownership and use by all South African students are not available. Research amongst school children research shows that 98-99% of high school learners across all school types owned a cell phone (Tustin, D, van Aardt, I &  Shai, 2009, New media usage and behaviour among adolescents in selected schools of Gauteng, UNISA).

[xii] Winters, N 2012, Learning and Technology in the Global South, at

[xiii] See for example, Jones, M,  Marsden, G & Gruijters, D (2005) Using mobile phones and PD in Banks, D (Ed) Audience response systems in higher education, IGI Global

[xiv] See for example Ng’ambi, D. & Brown, I. (2009). Intended and Unintended Consequences of Student Use of an Online Questioning Environment. In British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(2):316-328.

[xv] See

[xvi] The Mobility 2011 research project, (World Wide Worx) reports that 39% of urban South Africans and 27% of rural users are now browsing the Internet on their phones.

[xvii] Hanlie Liebenberg. H and Chetty, Y (2011)  Student ICT Survey: High-level  Analysis Presentation, University of South Africa, unpublished presentation

[xix] See

[xx] See for example Czerniewicz, L., Williams, K., & Brown, C. (2009). Students make a plan: understanding student agency in constraining conditions. In ALT-J Research in Learning Technology, 17 (2).

[xxi] Morgan Stanley Blue Paper 2011, Tablet Demand and Disruption, Mobile Users Come of Age, at

[xxii] Goldstuck, A 22 March 2012 Tablets aren’t taking off in emerging markets? Think again

[xxiii] India launched what it dubbed the world’s cheapest tablet computer Wednesday, to be sold to students at the subsidized price of $35 and later in shops for about $60.

[xxiv] and

[xxv]  Department of Basic Education (2012) General Household Survey 2010 Focus on Schooling, at…tabid=422