HELTASA’s Digital Teaching and Learning Project Team facilitated their second Digital Dialogue on Wednesday 27 July 2022. As with the first dialogue, this session was well attended with over 50 participants across a range of South African higher education institutions. The first Digital Dialogue in May was prompted by the question “What’s happening digitally at your institution now?” (read the key takeaways here), the focus for the second was on digital inequalities and emergent strategies in higher education. This involved a facilitated emergent strategies process, drawing on participants’ collective agency to share incremental steps towards change and thereby, reshaping our relationships with change.

Digital Inequalities

In addressing the challenges of the digital divide, and how these challenges mirror the inequalities within society, the guest speaker for the dialogue, Dr Najma Aghardien from the University of the Witwatersrand, highlighted the varying levels of access related to participation, digital skills and improved learning. This demonstrated how the digital divide is a social problem. Considering papers related to digital inequalities such as A Wake-Up Call: Equity, Inequality and Covid-19 Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning and ‘Deeply and deliciously unsettled’? Mis-reading discourses of equity in the early stages of Covid19, Dr Aghardien extracted the emerging themes from each paper. One theme was the assumption that staff and students are digitally fluid and how this could pose a threat to student success given the tendency to replicate “chalk and talk” methods online. Other themes demonstrated how some of the existing inequalities were amplified during the Covid-19 period and how the lack of guidance by national higher education structures exposed some vulnerabilities among staff and students. Thus, the digital divide creates an entanglement with other challenges. Lastly, the issue of agency and communication was crucial for learning and deep engagement and its presence or not during emergency remote learning and teaching. Dr Aghardien concluded with the following questions:

  • How can we counteract digital inequalities to ensure a just representation of all knowledge(s) and/or people (lives/livelihoods)?
  • What are some equitable actions that can get us to a culture of trust and care in a remote learning environment for students?
  • How might ICT integration foster Personal Learning Communities to better prepare students for their various roles in society/world of work and beyond?

Emergent strategies

The Digital Learning and Teaching team then facilitated a session drawing on a presentation by Karen Costa at MYFest22 entitled “Re-imaging Higher Education”. The workshop drew heavily from the work of Adrienne Maree Brown. An emergent strategies process encourages us to reimagine and reframe our relationship with change so that we can shape change rather than only being shaped by change. We often look at massive problems in our institutions, feel very small, and then feel like there’s nothing we can do to change things, which can be demotivating. The emergent strategy process encourages us to recognise a holistic future where our small actions do matter and can create changes in the system.

The process yielded many rich and interesting ideas. Some of these were:

  • A shared understanding of the greater good: Given the complexities in the world, there appears to be a shared understanding of what people would like to see for humanity in the future. It is a future filled with hope and one that is alive with possibilities.
  • A shared vision for higher education: A shared vision for higher education that takes into consideration some of the challenges that impact digital inequalities. These include digital literacies, quality learning and teaching, a culture of care, collaboration, creativity, accessibility and open-mindedness.
  • A view of contested spaces: Concerns around widening access, equal access to resources, employability and collaboration are still contested spaces in higher education and play a huge role in compounding challenges related to digital inequalities and social justice.

What is important in the emergent strategy process is the focus on the next step that each of us can take to move towards our envisaged shared future.