Post-conference reflections on 'Transforming education through technological innovation'

I am back from Stellenbosch and Cape Town. The Glocal Classroom conference and ComDev seminar provided interesting food for thought for a researcher who is a relatively new professional in the field of ICT and global education.
As always, these are my personal reflections, by no means trying to summarize the conference or to provide a comprehensive picture of all the presentations or discussions. My reflections will be focusing on three particular issues for the sake of keeping within the limits of a reasonably short and readable blog post: First, the admin-teacher gap in the ICT and education discourses, second, the powerful presence of multinational companies and third, challenges of designing a digital learning infrastructure beyond university-wide learning platforms or blogs.

Assumptions and incentives, or: Dear administrators, please talk to the teachers!
Most participants of the conference were actually not teaching staff of universities. Administrators from student or IT services in the broadest sense and academic university managers dominated the discussions. This may explain to some extent that discussions focused on teaching and training up to a point where it sounded as if educating students is the only business universities do these days. This is a core mandate as well as business of many universities, but it was often discussed as if it was the only business and that in the natural order of things every academic likes to teach-lots, of course.

My colleague in the U.S. who is preparing her tenure case, my colleague in the UK who just contributed to the REF or my colleague in Germany who spends most of his time on preparing grant applications may beg to differ. Maybe teaching should be a priority, but right now most incentive or promotion systems work in different ways. When one senior administrator told the story of how he visits academic staff at their desks who are not active on the university’s learning system he made it sound as if he is waking up some lazy academics who fell asleep at their desks. There was not one example where incentive structures favored more/better/engaged teaching. I was waiting for a deal along the lines of ‘instead of two articles in top journals you can also submit two teaching evaluations in the top 10 percentage of evaluations’, but it did not happen.
If you want research grants, top publications, engagement with the outside world through consultancies or public speaking, be more honest about the time left for engaging with students-especially outside ‘normal’ classroom teaching, marking and face-to-face supervision.
I know that basically every university is a world class teaching, research, innovation and leadership hub these days, but either you are honest about the fees that (foreign) students contribute and be OK with OK teaching for OK students or you make provisions for better teaching and learning-a difficult task for traditional universities that have been doing ‘all of the above’ for some time and do not excel in any of them.

Just adding technology to your teaching is not enough. You need resources (see also my last point); resources equal time, time equals incentives, incentives lead to better (teaching) outcomes.

Can you maintain some critical distance when global companies discover an emerging market?
ICT, ICT4D or ICT4E attract IT companies-but to what extent are they in the driver’s seat and is there anything universities can or should be doing about?


I went to a conference and got a T-Shirt
Three major, global companies participated in the conference. Their weapons of choice? Short, fast-paced YouTube videos with suggestive emotional music and lots of ‘facts’ that make your average TED talk look a bit like a traditional lecture from the 1990s.
They also presented their latest gadgets, glasses and watches that can take pictures. As they ‘care deeply about education’ these companies are ready to help your university, your country and the entire continent to improve education. Social enterprises, if not outright charities, those service, device and software companies one could almost think...

But how can you keep some critical distance or opt out of mainstream systems, go open source etc.? It is easier said than done and it is easier said by academics with their shiny machines in their hands than done by cash-strapped, over-worked IT departments. But it is stills scary to think how these companies already have a big foot in the emerging African education market door and are more than ready to cater to those who can afford their services- long- or short-term. A form of digital colonialism? A cost-effective way of making a global, digital classroom reality? Globalization? It would be great to discuss alternatives and explore the nuances and grey areas of corporate engagement in higher education.

Designing interaction beyond learning platforms and inflexible systems
Linked to the tech discussions above, the conference also provided some insights into the challenges of making a Glocal classroom a meaningful digital and virtual pedagogical experience. Again, there is an argument for a university-wide learning platform, for using systems that already work and that come with support etc., but sharing our ComDev team experience highlighted some of the pedagogical and design challenges that we have been engaging with for many years. I focused on our close link to Interaction Design and how mindful we have been in designing our platform and interactions, integrated into our mandatory university-wide platform. Our teaching has been time- and staff-intensive and requires pedagogical and research input from academic and support staff, IT or the library.
Finding the balance between quality and resource-constraints is not always easy and will remain a challenge for everything from the biggest MOOC to the smallest virtual classroom experience. As always, technology can be a great enabler, but the digital classroom requires time, discussions, a clear vision and communication as to how your university should look like in the future-beyond interchangeable
‘mission statements’ from a website.

Overall, this was an interesting first part of our Glocal classroom project and we are looking forward to continue the discussions in Guelph, Canada at the end of May!

We also had a great time at RLabs in Bridgetown and in one of my next posts I will share some reflections on my discussion with aidworker-turned-aidauthor Jillian Reilly!

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