This study looks at the use and academic views of online education at a time of serious disruption to South African universities in 2015-2017, when most of the twenty-six universities were physically shut down by student protests (Habib 2019, Jansen 2017), and academics were encouraged by management to use online education to complete the academic year. There is a literature on the use of educational technology in unstable contexts such as the Syrian conflict (Tauson & Stannard, 2018; UNESCO, 2018); or natural disaster, such as the floods following Hurricane Katrina (Hoover, Dopson & Drehobl, 2010) as well as the New Zealand earthquakes, (Mackey, et al, 2012; Tull, Dabner & Ayebi-Arthur, 2017).
There is, however, very little on such uses where there was doubt and ambivalence about its use (see Swartz et al for an exception). In a context of severe disruption on campus, attitudes to using educational technology were divided and the practicalities were also severe. While some academics were already engaged in blended learning, in this case its use would reduce the protestors’ greatest point of leverage against the university (i.e., the disruption of teaching activities) and it was seen as a controversial and politicised form of teaching engagement.
This study interviewed academics in three faculties at one research-intensive university to investigate how they engaged with and thought about online technology is such circumstances. These were academics who were in departments which had expressed interest in exploring this option during the shutdowns.
Using Activity Theory (Engeström, 1987) to enable a nuanced and context-based account of practices within the ecosystem, the paper explains both the activities and the profound contradictions of technology-mediated practices in these challenging circumstances. Suspicious of the top-down encouragement of a stop-gap measure, online strategies were viewed as an inferior pedagogical strategy, a mechanism for exacerbating inequality and an ambivalent way of responding to legitimate student demands. At minimum, it heightened the emotions surrounding the prospects of both blended learning and the protests. The study provides a stark case of the politised nature of educational technology and how it could be appropriated in diametrically opposing ways, of interest beyond the specifics of this particular contested context.
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