A role for Open Education in the #feesmustfall movement in South African Higher Education


Students and staff demonstrating at the University of Cape Town. Picture courtesy of Discott, provided under a CC BY-SA license.

Over the past few months the South African university sector has been subjected to sustained and protracted protest by groups of students, accompanied by trade unions, political parties and other activist groups who see themselves as stakeholders in the higher education sector, calling for free education under the banner of #feesmustfall. These protests, which have garnered international attention with reports from the BBC and the Washington Post, have led to widespread disruption of the teaching and learning project at South African universities, with many institutions needing to employ emergency measures to salvage the 2016 academic year.

These protests have also affected teaching and learning at the University of Cape Town, where the ROER4D project Network Hub is based. While we are able to continue our research work under these difficult circumstances, we are mindful that the call for free and decolonised education is one in which our project is contextually situated. The motivations behind students’ demands are rooted in a need for equitable access to higher education, a call which is supported by many academics and management in the university, even if the sometimes violent methods are contested. Together these stakeholders are bound together in making sense of a situation in a which decreasing government funding for education is juxtaposed with an increasing demand for high quality and relevant tertiary education. This increasing trend towards shifting funding from the public sector to students, coupled with underfunding in basic education, suggests that the current call for free higher education is therefore one which, although loud and disruptive in the case of South African universities, has no easy solution and little likelihood of immediate resolution to the satisfaction of protesting students and other concerned stakeholder groups.

One possible fruitful response is to examine the many varied conversations around what the #feesmustfall movement means to students and academics beyond a call for free (no-cost) education and ascertain where there might be alignment to what the open movement could contribute. There are a number of issues that those involved in the #feesmustfall movement seek to address in terms of the provision of a particular type or approach to educational provision which go beyond cost and access. Simply put, it is not merely a case of “more of the same but free”. Beyond free access is a call to transform what students learn and how they are taught. This relates to conversations around what constitutes knowledge, whose knowledge is privileged, what is considered the norm, from which perspective a discipline is taught, what the language of instruction is, and how its students are acculturated.

In these conversations, students have called for social justice and for “decolonised education”; what this means is currently the focus of many university stakeholders – from senior management, to academics and students. A review of student manifestos and demands indicates concerns around the content of teaching materials rather than just the availability of those materials; concerns about how students are taught (especially those who are seen to require academic support); questions around the pedagogical approaches teachers use (including the use of educational technology); and questions around the role students themselves might play in the teaching and learning process. It appears that calls for decolonisation of the curriculum tie into broad strategies for revising teaching and learning practices in universities in order to redress historical inequalities and promote social justice.

Despite broad consensus about the importance of addressing this aim, there is confusion and uncertainty about how social justice might be achieved. For some students and academics, decolonisation might mean the rejection of education that is purportedly Western or colonial, as evidenced in the well publicised #sciencemustfall incident where a student argued for the scrapping of what she categorised “Western science” as a whole in order for a new, decolonised approach to science to materialise. For others it is about building a specifically African knowledge base and scholarship aligned to or augmenting what might be considered canonical or valid. Other approaches might be to rewrite the historical record to acknowledge the role of the diverse cultures who have contributed to knowledge in the disciplines. Quite apart from what decolonisation might mean to different disciplines, to different groups of students, and to different groups of academics, are the issues around what it might look like in practice.

Responses from an open education perspective

Among the many responses and conversations around solutions to this call for free education, the role of Open Education and Open Educational Resources (OER) have not featured prominently as part of the current discourse in South Africa. Perhaps it is implied in the need to find ways to assist students to learn in resource-constrained environments and in how broader society is engaged in looking at how tertiary education can be funded. It is likely that many people in Open Education feel frustrated and helpless that some of the central tenets and beliefs about Open Education are not more central to the conversations around how high quality, free education might become more of a reality for the currently underserved.

The OER movement is almost two decades old, and many institutions in South Africa have explored aspects of Open Education through OER and Open Access initiatives with the aim of looking at ways of providing more equitable access to educational opportunity, an underpinning goal of OER. However, the impact of OER initiatives at South African universities is unclear (Cox, 2016). Issues around understanding the potential of Open Education have not permeated among decision-makers at governmental level, at the level of Departments of Education, or within senior management at institutions. The mention of OER in a Draft Policy Framework for the Provision of Distance Education in South African Universities held considerable promise at the time, but has not as yet led to anything resembling a national policy on OER (Cox, 2016).

More recently, some universities in South Africa have also started Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) projects, a specific form of Open Education. The MOOC movement is however very new and research needs to be undertaken in order to be able to make any judgements concerning impact in South Africa.

Perhaps the #feesmustfall movement provides an opportunity for those working in Open Education to elevate conversations around Open Education and OER in order to build awareness of the potential of more open approaches to education, especially in terms of how teaching and learning practices could transform and become more open. Practitioners working in the open movement refer to teaching and learning practices that incorporate OER or other indicators of openness as Open Educational Practices (OEP). OEP is a broad term which incorporates a number of possible practices (often including the use, adoption or creation of OER), but generally encompasses more participatory and learner-centred teaching and learning spaces. How might it be possible to start conversations around the potential of more widespread adoption of OER and the associated OEP to positively impact upon access to contextually relevant education, the affordability of educational materials, the quality of student engagement, and appropriate educator practices?

This is a difficult space for open practitioners to grapple with in terms of contributing to the #feesmustfall conversation and around pedagogical innovation more generally. Research indicates that awareness of OER and OEP among academics is low, and it remains a challenge to explicate how the tools and practices that encompass Open Education could be deployed to fruitfully energise the conversations around imagining possible solutions to issues outlined in the #feesmustfall movement. For example, appreciating the possibilities of what can be done in teaching and learning spaces with an educational resource if it is an OER is a foundational concept to understand if one wants to imagine how OER might serve a useful role in a teaching and learning space. As David Wiley has argued in a recent blog post, it is the permissions enabled in an OER that enable free access and other things, and it is those permissions that potentially open up a host of other possibilities around both the use of the content itself and the teaching and learning practices enabled (sometimes referred to as “open pedagogy”).

From a content point of view, new possibilities are therefore enabled by granting certain legal permissions in OER which overcome traditional copyright limitations: the potential to co-create materials and share them more widely, or to adapt and localise existing materials with context-specific examples, or produce a different language version. This can happen at many levels and by different constituencies: groups of academics in different institutions can collaborate to customise or localise teaching materials, while at another level a lecturer might work with a group of students to co-create teaching materials or develop assessments as OER. Free materials can be an outcome of these practices, but it is not the only outcome; there is a pedagogical design attached to these activities that influences the nature of teaching and learning. One can imagine an alignment between some of the examples of OEP and some of the calls for decolonisation of the curriculum.

“Deliberation of the curriculum” as a way of thinking about decolonisation of the curriculum

An alternative approach to considering how decolonisation of the curriculum might be approached is to draw on the work of Schwab (1983) and his notion of “deliberation of the curriculum”. Drawing on this summary of understanding Schwab’s approach to “deliberating the curriculum”, it is helpful to consider how Schwab defines curriculum:

“Curriculum is what is successfully conveyed to differing degrees to different students, by committed teachers using appropriate materials and actions, of legitimated bodies of knowledge, skill, taste, and propensity to act and react, which are chosen for instruction after serious reflection and communal decision by representatives of those involved in the teaching of a specified group of students who are known to the decisionmakers.” (Schwab, 1983)

This description depicts curriculum as a dynamic action-oriented process, where decisions are made about what to teach and how to teach by taking into account the specific context of students. Schwab introduces a mode of enquiry into how a curriculum might be “deliberated” which he terms as a “practical” approach. His “method of the practical” takes as a given that problems are uncertain and complex and where many possible choices could be made for a particular context. He stipulates four “commonplaces” of a curriculum: teachers, subject matter, students, and the mileu, and proposes a systematic consideration of all is required during a process of deliberation. This approach seeks to find the most defensible course of action to a specific context with regards to curriculum to be taken by ‘deliberations’ of the teachers and students, consideration of the subject matter and the mileu in which learning takes place.

Schwab’s approach has more complexity than there is space here to unpack, but the idea of the curriculum as a process of “deliberation”, his unpacking of the “commonplaces” that make up the system of the curriculum, and his “method of the practical”, provide a fruitful way to think about decolonisation of a curriculum, at least in terms of a process that might be followed. At the heart of the approach is a need to understand that the means by which a curriculum is constructed contributes to its outcomes (the ends). Process and practices of teachers and students deliberating together are the curriculum.

In what ways do OEP and more broadly Open Education align with Schwab’s proposal of ‘deliberation’? Although Schwab published his work in the 1970s and early 1980s, his approach to deliberation of the curriculum has some resonance with the way practitioners and researchers are approaching and understanding OEP today. Cronin describes OEP as:

“Collaborative practices which include the creation, use and reuse of OER and pedagogical practices employing participatory technologies, peer learning, knowledge creation and sharing, and empowerment of learners” (Cronin, 2016)

What OEP look like and how they manifest is dependent on the particular context or situation, but it can be assumed that decisions around choosing to create an OER, decisions in how to localise an OER, how to invite learners to co-create a learning resource, and so on are ways of constructing a curriculum around which there is a shared understanding – potentially a deliberation. Schwab’s structured approach and precise terminology describing the curriculum, the “commonplaces”, and the notion of a “practical” and contextually appropriate approach is possibly helpful to see how a community of stakeholders might go about deliberating the curriculum, using some of the tools and methods of Open Education.

This is a tentative exploration of some of the possible connections between the #feesmustfall movement’s call for decolonisation of the curriculum, the role and opportunity of OEP and Open Education more broadly, and what Schwab’s notion of “deliberating the curriculum” might offer as a way of achieving more equitable access and social justice. This is a goal common to both the #feesmustfall movement and Open Education.

With thanks to Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams for the introduction to Schwab’s work and Michelle Willmers for editorial advice.


Cronin, C. (2016). Openness and praxis: Exploring the use of open educational practices in higher education. [Slideshare].
Cox, G. (2016). Open Education in South African Higher Education. [Blog]
Schwab, J. (1983). The practical 4: Something for curriculum professors to do. Curriculum Inquiry, 13, pp.239 –266.

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