When your office building is rebuilt while you are still working: A study about the influence of epistemological, political and national changes on teacher training in distance education

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This article is an interpretative study about the experience of a lecturer who trained teachers at a distance education university for 26 years. The aim of the article is to make knowledge and experience gained over years available to novices in the field of teacher training.

A qualitative approach is used in the article and a literature study and observation are used as methodology. The article can be regarded as a mixture of ethnography and auto-ethnography. The strategy used in ethnography and auto-ethnography is observation and a description of a number of events. The data analysis is interpretative and consists of a description of a number of phenomena that were examined (De Vos, Strydom, Fouché and Delport 2005:271).

Political and national changes in a country influence the education system. In the article it is asked what happens when the office in the so-called ivory tower where you are working has to be changed to keep abreast of political, national and global changes. Should one hope that the changes do not reach you or should one rather consider how to adapt to the changes? The article covers three periods in the history of education in South Africa: the last six years of the apartheid era; the first six years of the post-apartheid era; and the first 12 years of the 21st century. The influence of epistemology on education in all three of the eras is discussed, as well as the challenges that it posed to people who train teachers.

During the apartheid era universities were still seen as “ivory towers”. In South Africa, education and higher education should be regarded within the socio-economic context of the apartheid era. The South African society was divided based on race and there were differences in the provision of education based on race. During this phase some of the principles of the social sciences were dominated by positivism, which can be regarded as a broader concept than behaviourism. Distance education was in its so-called third period, which was known as the telelearning model. The teaching was still print-driven and the distance university where I was working mass-produced study material. The content of the study material used during this period was based predominantly on Eurocentric theories. I started to realise that the South African context, as well as the African context, had to be included in the study material.

During the post-apartheid era the “ivory tower” where I was working slowly had to rebuild itself and open more doors. During this period the influence of globalisation was  gradually being felt in South Africa. The country was slowly incorporated into the global city and new knowledge entered higher education. The “ivory tower” which housed my office had to open more new doors because of the growth in knowledge and in new developments. Two influences were especially prominent in this period, namely placing higher education within the context of a competitive global economy and at the same time addressing the legacy of apartheid. As a trainer of student teachers my idea to work in an isolated office in an ivory tower was fading away. After 1994 one of the big problems in the education system was that the system had to continue to function while changes were being made. Sehoole (2003:143) aptly states that it was like changing the wheel of a car while driving the car. During this period Outcomes-Based Education was introduced into the South African school system and it was one of the many education policies which had to be introduced to student teachers.

This period was characterised by the rise of modernism and postmodernism which appeared in society and also in the education system. Constructivism as the dominant learning theory was accepted by most of the education establishments. A more flexible learning model was introduced at universities, which included aspects such as the introduction of semester modules, the use of linked web pages, computer-based learning and the use of the internet. I started to realise that as a trainer of student teachers I could no longer stay in an ivory tower and that I had to take cognisance of what was happening in South Africa and in the rest of the world.

After 1994 the education policies of the new government were continually changing. “Literally thousands of pages worth of numerous policy documents and new legislation were drawn out over the next years” (Malde 2005:6). It was an enormous task to keep teacher students informed about the latest government policies.

The first 12 years of the 21st century were characterised by rapid globalisation. The university as an ivory tower had to build many types of different “towers” and many new doors had to be opened. In the new millennium many changes occurred in higher education. It included changes such as the accessibility of universities, the changing profile of students, the changing role of lecturers, funding and the role of the university management referred to as managerialism. For instance, it was expected of lecturers to help and to support students to study. Students also had to be prepared for entering the job market and thus institutions of higher education had to consider the needs of the job market. Political decision-making and changing education policies placed pressure on the management of universities. The influence of the state, which supplies funding for higher education, increased. Wolhuter, Higgs, Higgs and Ntshoe (2009:273–4) write: “The state and other stakeholders (industry, students as clients of the university, taxpayers) demand accountability for their investment in higher education. Academic autonomy is increasingly eroded as business principles, such as accountability, quality control, managerialism and profitability are applied to the running of universities.” Many lecturers found it difficult to adapt to the changing profile of the university, sometimes referred to as organisational authority. This is a global trend.

I had to accept the fact that distance education, as well as distance education students, were changing. In line with adult education it is now expected of distance education to change knowledge into practical application and to change facts into effective implementation. In line with the international trend, the university where I am teaching decided to become an open university and to accept the open distance teaching model.

The new millennium is the era of critical thinking and social constructivism. The concept of neo-liberalism also started to enter political and academic discourse. Neoliberalism has not been well defined, but it is described as a set of political convictions. For instance, education is valued because of the probability of changing objects or ideas into marketing goods which include students who can become better workers in the 21st century (Weldon, Rexhepi and Chang 2011:6). Education as it was is now slowly being seen in terms of money. Universities entered the so-called fifth generation and the idea of communities of learning and practice is accepted. In distance education it is planned to use various media in an attempt to help students to make a success of their studies. This means that in distance education more routes to improve the teaching and learning will have to be introduced to support students.

After many years in teacher training I now realise that I am not responsible only for the content that is taught. Student pass rates are also the responsibility of lecturers, thus forcing me to reflect regularly on my own teaching. I realise that research which helps me to keep abreast of new developments and needs in education plays an important role in my teaching. I know that in education one can learn from your previous students who are standing in school classrooms every day. Although one has to be informed about changes in education circles, one should never hesitate to retain one’s own, well-considered opinions.

Keywords: auto-ethnography; distance education; ethnography; globalisation; ivory tower; modernism; post-apartheid; pragmatism; teacher training; technology

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Wanneer jou kantoorgebou herbou word terwyl jy werk: ’n Studie oor die invloed van epistemologiese, politieke en nasionale veranderinge op onderwysersopleiding in afstandsonderrig.

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