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SA’s higher learning institutions expedite digital projects

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A study of South Africa’s higher education sector has revealed an overall increase in digital transformation across higher learning institutions, as they move to improve learning outcomes.

Global e-learning firm D2L has announced the results of a survey of more than 450 higher education professionals in SA, which highlights the need for higher education institutions to put the student learning experience at the centre of their digital transformation agenda.

According to the global study, overall, respondents in SA have seen an increase in the level of digital skills and implementation of edtech within academic and learner communities, which, at 59% of respondents, is higher than that reported in the UK (46%) and Benelux (39%).

Compared to respondents from the rest of the world, those from SA report the greatest positive change in attitude towards education technology due to the pandemic.

Around 53% of the respondents further reported that improving student engagement is the key objective for their digital transformation projects, while another 53% indicate improving learning outcomes, and 48% indicate improving student retention and completion.

Despite the positive shift, the study reveals SA is behind Europe in terms of access to e-learning portals in education. Only 7% of local respondents offer all their courses fully online, in comparison to 16% from the UK. Barriers faced while implementing online learning-related strategies in the country include internet connectivity, access to suitable devices and the academic digital skills gap.

“Change is starting to happen in SA and it will probably be like a domino effect. The pandemic has forced a long-term shift in the way we think about edtech and digital transformation, and it’s a good sign that higher education institutions are putting the student experience and learning outcomes at the centre of their strategies,” says Stewart Watts, VP, EMEA, D2L.

“More than 90% of respondents in SA say institutions need to digitally transform to enable future growth, and improving digital skills within the academic community is also a top priority.”

According to D2L, before the pandemic, the majority of South African institutions had less than half of their learning offering available online despite nearly nine out of 10 universities having started implementing their digital strategy sometime before 2020.

A study released in June by Dell Technologies found that spending cuts, declining fees and falling hostel revenues were putting pressure on educational institutions’ IT budgets, hampering their efforts to fully embrace innovative technologies.

D2L notes the COVID-19 crisis accelerated efforts to implement digital strategies in SA and as a result, there is now an improvement in the number of courses available online for students.

A significantly higher proportion of respondents in SA (58%) also report the increased introduction of new learning tools and technologies to improve the digital learning experience, compared with their colleagues in other EMEA countries, with 48% in the UK and 41% in Benelux.

“The next few years are likely to herald significant changes across the higher education sector and the push to improve digital skills is welcome,” comments Watts.

“With many institutions fully committed to investing in infrastructure and staff training as a priority, we will likely see a net positive for the education sector, as new pedagogical methods are enabled that can greatly benefit universities, staff and, most importantly, the students.

“For South Africa specifically, digital transformation will lead to improved skills and capabilities that will be indispensable as students and staff innovate with new technologies.”

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