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Can South African higher education institutions embrace the digital era?

While opinions of implementation and other factors differ, many authors, experts and researchers agree on one point: the future of education is digital. Institutions around the world have embraced online learning as a means to attract more students and provide the public with alternative ways of learning. In South Africa, though, the situation is constrained by access.

Statistics point to the fact that just over 20 million people have access to the internet in South Africa. On the continent as a whole, only 18% of the population are internet users, 7% active on social networks, and 67% have active mobile subscriptions. This has created a huge challenge for South African universities that want to go online, even more so for an open distance learning (ODL) institution such as Unisa.

Dr Jan-Martin Lowendahl, Vice-President: Gartner and a Research Director for Higher Education (HE) Strategies, endorsed the idea of online during a Unisa seminar on Embracing the digital era, on 4 June 2014. He believes that the online and digital component is a critical business model for tertiary institutions. “IT (internet technology) has become a game changer, and in order to optimise the yield of the organisation, all resources have to be taken into account. The impacts of people, process and technology cannot be separated from each other.”

The Gartner education team introduced the higher education business model scenarios in 2009 with “Four business model scenarios for higher education: An introduction to strategic planning through storytelling. The model breaks down institutions into four different categories:

  • Only Us U – Are highly exclusive institutions, such as the University of Tokyo, Oxford and Harvard.
  • Me Not U – Typically exemplified by business schools, such as Wharton, catering for a clear exclusive community both on the student and future employer side.
  • Everybody’s U – Exemplified by many public community colleges and institutions with very limited entrance restrictions.
  • All About U – Best described as open but individualised programs of study for either credit or non-credit, such as UK Open University.

The model provides insights into how higher education institutions (HEIs) can plan for many different eventualities while determining their own course of action. Lowendahl admits that a one size fits all approach cannot be used when applying this model. South African data or statistics would provide greater insight into possible competitors and scenarios in the HE landscape, which could then be used in tandem with the strategic plan.

One common challenge, though, that he’s seen across the world with HEIs is that more than 60% of their IT strategic planning is isolated from the institution’s strategic planning process or the budget. While getting individuals involved, this fails to address the main goal of strategic planning. “This is more commonly thought of as determining where you are going, how you will get there and determining if you really did get to where you wanted to go! Strategic planning has become strategic even in higher education. But, ultimately, it always comes down to people and how they execute,” he concluded.

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