Unisa’s digital leap for studentkind

unisa view

        Unisa is sailing into a cyber-sea

Age is no deterrent to digital awareness! This year the University of South Africa, Unisa, turns 140. It is to become the first in this country with no papertrail on courses (except for students who don’t seek to have or can’t get web access). It is also offering amazing savings on tablet devices and online connectivity.

It’s hardly a surprising development. As a distance learning institution, serving hundreds of thousands of students not on campus but widely spread across the land and indeed the world, Unisa must of necessity position itself in cyberspace. Unisa has swung deals for super-reduced prices on tablets and laptops: everything needed to connect students to their studies. Imagine being able to buy a fully functional tablet computer for R1200 and have access to 3 Gigs of data month for R100.

For that, I’d like to sign up too. My dated iPad-1 cost nearly four times that much with far less capacity. Meantime I’m paying over R650 a month for a satellite service that is far from rocket speed.

The online launch has been some time in the making and it involves probably the largest transformation the university has ever undertaken in its long history. Since last year, students have been able to submit multiple-choice assignments via their mobile phones. From the beginning of this month, Unisa students who are registered for formal qualifications have been able to buy devices and access.

I was privileged this week to take part in a discussion of what the shift to a paperless learning environment will mean for students, staff and the business fortunes of the university. The business model of Unisa requires economies of scale and streamlined systems.

Thanks to the IAJ (Institute for the Advancement of Journalism) I engaged in a discussion at Unisa that illuminates how tertiary institutions see developments in the future. The threat of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) from major overseas universities is forcing traditional universities to re-evaluate their research and teaching approaches.studentPatternsInMoocs2

Unisa however is in a unique position on the African continent. It has been in distance learning for generations. Its challenge now is how to manage the transition from traditional pen-and-post assignments and tuition to electronic communications.

MOOCs are designed as money-spinners riding on the reputation of leading universities like Harvard, and there is generally a huge drop-out rate. As the accompanying graph shows, only a minority of those who show interest or sign up are committed to finishing. The rest are lurkers, drop-ins and passives. The more that fall off the bus, the greater the profit margin.

Critics call this cynical. It’s reaping the rewards of knowledge in the wrong way.

Unisa is not in that game. “Graduateness” (a term I had never heard of) relates to the generic qualities of any graduate, which translated into ordinary language implies that Unisa aims to up the game of its graduates. They will be computer-savvy, plugged into the wide world of cyber-education and networking, and generally a cut above those who still use pens and envelopes.

But not all students are happy with the move. A quick scan of Twitter reveals a mix of resistance to going online, complaints against poor service, and accusations that paperwork and online assignments are differently marked. Yes, the transition is going to put people out of their comfort zones. But is there an alternative? Nope.

Go digital or go home. No doubt teething problems will continue as the 10-year roll-out of Unisa online proceeds. But in the modern world, access to a computer and the internet are essential tools and anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a different universe.

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