DHASA2017 – Abstract

Digital and crucial exclusivities.

Sewchurran, Anusharani
University of KwaZulu-Natal

It is widely acknowledged that critical thinking is one of the most important skills for human sciences students to develop. This is both in terms of general life skills and for survival in the modern marketplace (Bozalek and Watters 2014, Dongwe 2013, Dunne 2013, Jacobs 2007, Paxton and Frith 2014, Rossouw 2003, and Shalem and Pendlebury 2010). The imperative for critical thinking is also strong in national (the center for higher education) and institutional policy discourses (UKZN policy on teaching and learning). The amalgam of massified tertiary education, issues around access, cost factors and pressure to research most, have led academics to consider digital solutions as a means of achieving teaching goals. Institutions often compel academics to use the digital space more (e.g. phasing in of moodle at undergraduate years – UKZN).

This paper interrogates digital affordances for the tertiary teaching context in relation to developing critical thinking. The paper problematizes superficial digital solutions as means of engagement. It reflects on some of the digital imperatives upon a university teaching context and explores alternate ways towards authentic learning within and alongside a digital environment. The study departs from traditional notions of critical thinking to critical being (a modern variety of Aristotle’s phronesis) which is encompassed in the notion of ‘criticality’ articulated by Dunne (2014). The paper emerges from Whiteheads ‘Living theory research’ (Whitehead and Huxtable 2013) which offers a fundamental question as a reflective form of self- study, ‘how can I improve what I am doing?’ Whitehead asserts this question as a legitimate starting point to “an ethically driven form of research where the educator recognizes and takes responsibility for the contribution they make to the quality of the educational relationship, space and opportunities experienced by learners” (Whitehead 2013, 2).

Many tertiary education scholars have reflected on the changing higher education landscape in South Africa (Cloete, Fehnel, Maassen, Moja, Perold and Gibbon 2002, Singh 2015, Rossouw 2003, Simelane, Bignaut & Van Ryneveld 2007, and Moodley 2015). Tertiary level teaching is in a manner of speaking, under siege by a range of pressures from globalization, competition from private entities, rapidly changing work environments requiring newly and differently skilled graduates (Cloete, Fehnel, Maassen, Moja, Perold and Gibbon 2002, Singh 2015 and Moodley 2015) and the intensified appropriation of attention by the social media (Davenport and Beck 2002). While some scholars have focused on structural transformation, others have focused on the changing technological landscape (Blewett 2015, Bozalek & V Ng’ambi 2013, Bozalek, & Watters 2014, Cahalan 2013). It is clear that the new globalized marketplace is complex, diverse and mutable. It has resulted in the transformation of many traditional workspaces. In the modern workplace jobs are conflated as a result of dematerialization and old technological knowledge is rapidly rendered obsolete with traditional jobs being eroded from the work-scape (Glenn 2010, 254-255). This climate coupled with the economic downturn has raised interesting questions around tertiary education particularly for the Human Sciences (within which Media and Cultural Studies resides). Media and Cultural Studies as a discipline is perhaps the most affected by a rapidly changing technological landscape. Alongside this the work of media graduates is also rapidly changing.

In preparing graduates for this changing workplace one needs to consider both critical thinking and engaged citizenry as necessary conditions to survival of the individual and the larger democratic order however fragile. Bozalek and Watters (2014, 1070) state that, “graduate attributes…should allow graduates to learn ‘for an unknown future’. Dunne argues for criticality as a ‘raison d’ etre of higher education (2014, 86). He states that criticality must be differentiated from critical thinking as it encompasses, “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, critical self-reflection and critical action” (2014, 87). This is a fundamental aspect to preparing graduates for new workplaces and employers lament the lack of critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills (Dunne 2014, 87). Dunne while referring to the former president of Harvard University argues further that there are ‘yawning chasms between the rhetoric of educational policy and the verifiable actuality of student learning’ (ibid). This means that while critical thinking is highlighted at the policy level, it is not necessarily realized in teaching. Bozelak and Watters (2014, 1070) indicate that while this discourse around graduate attributes and criticality is important, “one of the problems of looking solely at curriculum alignment to achieve graduate attributes is that many of the attributes are process driven.” They offer an alternative approach to achieving graduate attributes which is a shifted focus to ‘authentic learning’ and ‘authentic learning environments (ibid).

This paper addresses the complex translation of policy imperatives (with a specific emphasis on the “critical”) into meaningful (digital) practice. The paper engages with the processes of embedding criticality as articulated by Dunne (2014) and graduate attributes and authentic learning (Bozelak and Watters 2014) in a larger massified, digital context.