In the world’s new knowledge economy, innovation and technological change are recognised as the primary drivers of progress. Technological and digital literacy will be a crucial part of helping many countries move beyond their reliance on material resources.
Such literacy, and an understanding of technology in general, will also be crucial for university students. They will have to develop the ability to collaborate across multiple contexts, filter and synthesise information from a variety of sources. These skills will be necessary if students are to contribute to the world in the 21st century.
We live in a world where the phone in your pocket has more processing power than the computers that were used to put men on the moon. But what is being done to make better use of the affordances of technology in higher education? Not much, unfortunately. In general, academics continue along traditional lines of thinking and practice that seem to ignore technological progress and its accelerating rate of change.
To address these challenges, higher education institutions must ask what steps they can take to ensure that their students are relevant in the future. The following suggestions may help the academy to think differently about how technology is used in the classroom.
Access is increasing
One common rationale for not bringing technology into the classroom is that access to technology is not uniformly distributed among students. This is especially true in a country like South Africa, where I teach, and on the African continent as a whole. But access to textbooks is uneven, too, and no-one would use that as a reason to ban textbooks in class.
Things are changing faster than we think. When I started teaching in 2009, incorporating technology into the classroom was challenging. Few of my students had laptops or even computers at home. We didn’t have good access to wifi in lecture halls, so we had to use the computer labs. Now every student in my classroom is encouraged to use phones, tablets and laptops to search for new information that’s relevant to our topic, and to synthesise it for sharing in our discussions. They can do so because smartphones are ubiquitous. Students can also collaboratively author course notes for the module.
The network is what matters
But merely providing access to devices does little to help students learn. Many studies still centre on access to the device, as if handing a student a tablet will magically develop the skills needed to use it effectively. It is time to change academics' thinking to prioritise the network over the device. The device is simply a window onto the network. The United Nations weighed in on this debate in 2011 when it declared that access to the internet should be recognised as a basic human right.
There is also a shift from vertical communication channels that privilege hierarchies of control to horizontal structures – like networks – that embody coordination, cooperation and collaboration. The power of the internet is not that it provides us with new and innovative means of sharing cat videos. It is a new communication paradigm that is constructed through community engagement and participation. It allows new forms of interaction between people, information and devices.
Preparing to adapt
As technology progresses and its influence becomes clear in every aspect of society - apart from higher education - universities need to ask if the next 50 years are going to look anything like the last 50. It seems as if the most important skill people can learn is how to adapt to a constantly changing world. If this is true, then academics may need to radically change what is prioritised in the curriculum, as well as how they teach students to learn. How can academics prepare students to be successful in a world that we can’t predict?
Incorporating technology into the classroom allows academics to help students develop the skill set needed for engaging meaningfully in the 21st century. Academics cannot continue with the notion that higher education is about providing students with access to specialised knowledge. Universities and individual lecturers cannot plan curricula for the lowest common denominator in terms of digital literacy and then base teaching and learning practices on that.
The academic enterprise is about striving to upset established models and paradigms and to push for change in how we understand and work within the world around us. It is time that academics applied themselves to this task - and technology is a crucial way of doing so.