Arguably the best way to find out how well the digital economy can support development is to try and use it for that purpose. That is what I did when I in 2013 redesigned the doctoral programme of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) of the University of Pretoria in South Africa to follow a blended learning design.
Most of the well-regarded PhD programmes in the world assume that students will be on campus and working on the PhD full-time. Universities need to obtain resources to pay a stipend to their PhD students so that students can support themselves. The PhD students benefit from the time to immerse themselves in the topic, but importantly also from being part of a community of people with similar interests.
Unfortunately, this scenario does not describe doctoral training in Africa. Many academics in wider Africa do not have PhDs, and although that increases the demand for supervision, it also means that there is a real lack of local supervisory capacity. The few available supervisors are typically overloaded, and work in isolation from what scholars elsewhere are doing.
It is also virtually unheard-of that PhDs on the African continent are pursued full-time; there simply are not enough resources to pay for PhD studies. This is not only because of the direct costs of paying stipends, but also the opportunity cost of taking skilled people (even if only temporarily) out of a system where resources generally and specifically skills are scarce. Faculty in these locations have a heavy teaching load, and often assume responsibilities beyond what would be expected from faculty elsewhere. Committees are a bane in the life of all working professionals, but giving pastoral (and sometimes practical) care to often desperately poor students, and advising government representatives at various levels are additional tasks that devour the time of African lecturers at nominally “junior” positions.
The faculty members at African universities have typically been star students who were asked to assume lecturing duties as soon as they had completed a Masters degree. By the time they realise the importance of getting a PhD, they are professionally deeply embedded in their universities. Although they can resign and pursue a PhD elsewhere, going abroad for a PhD is disruptive from a personal perspective. Many faculty members are responsible for older family members and often also young families. Having to live far away from the people of whom they need to take care and/or having to fund expenses in expensive countries often deter faculty from seeking doctoral studies abroad.
From a practical perspective, a PhD is needed for promotion in the academic system. More substantively, the research training that is part of a PhD allows people to rigorously examine and make sense of their world. The lack of trained scholars who are from and in Africa contributes to a vicious cycle where only very limited knowledge can emerge from a context that desperately needs a better understanding of its challenges.
But these concerns seem manageable when we take seriously the potential of recent digital developments. The promise of digital is that supervisors and students need not be physically in the same space, that communities can span multiple countries, and that libraries are as far away as a keyboard.
It was with this in mind that I redesigned the doctoral programme at GIBS to be a blended learning programme. There were on-campus sessions for a week every two months, but in the interim students had to deliver a substantial body of work online.
I used the logic of a conference in designing the programme. The on-campus sessions were filled with the energy and engagement that characterise a typical conference, while the “real work” happened before and after then. In between the on-campus sessions, students had to submit work where they showed that they had read and engaged with key texts. Given how important peer review is in the scholarly process, we expected of them to share their work with their peers – and assessed how well they reviewed the work of other PhD students, as well as how well they responded to others’ comments. In a few cases, we expected of students to work in small groups.
Most of the on-campus sessions served to further develop the work that had been delivered in the interim. Students presented (and were given feedback on) their work in progress. They in-person debated the work that they had read beforehand. They sometimes skipped class to sit and work through a knotty problem that had emerged earlier in the week so that they could benefit from the input of the group. And each on-campus had a session with an explicitly social purpose to help strengthen the support networks that kept students going through the multiple demands of the PhD, work and family.
The design works. In 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively the number of doctoral graduates grew from three to six to thirteen. A number of them won awards – for example, the 2017 overall winner of the best dissertation from an emerging economy for the international Production and Operations Managements Society, and the Emerald award for best the doctoral study in Leadership and Organization Development. Thanks to a grant of the IDRC, we were able to support academics from wider Africa. For the four who have already graduated, it is gratifying to see how the PhD is helping their careers take off.
But it would be wrong to ascribe the success of the design to its digital component. Not only because every successful intervention has to have multiple elements, but also because the digital element was perhaps the least reliable of all.
For PhD students who need to read (and before then, download) a mass of material, having reliable internet access is essential. For PhD students who engage with their faculty and fellow students through an online portal it is non-negotiable. Internet access exists across Africa, but it is not entirely reliable.
One Kenyan student found that her church had reliable internet, and developed the habit of taking her laptop to church to make sure that she was up to date with her online work. Another Kenyan student who was a development worker who occasionally had to go to Sudan, would simply disappear from view for weeks at a time. The fellow students of a Nigerian student were surprised when he dropped out of a conference meeting without a word of notice, but decided to continue. He showed up again ten minutes later: The power had gone off. He needed to get the generator going and then reboot the router before he could rejoin his fellow students.
Faculty had similar experiences with students from wider Africa, but faculty cannot afford to be as laissez faire as students can. Very soon it was decided that synchronous modes of conversation were simply too risky. Electronic connectedness worked well enough as long as one did not expect immediate responses. And there was a new manifestation of “the dog ate my homework”: Connectivity seemed to disappear just as students needed to submit their work. Of course we could not be sure, but it often seemed as if the less diligent the student, the less reliable the internet… It took some effort before we had developed internal processes that honoured the process of learning as well as the students who were battling with often-unreliable internet access.
Although the learning platform seemed to work well enough – there were outages, but they were planned and outages were clearly communicated – very little student activity happened on the site. Eventually we figured out what was happening: Students had created whatsapp groups and were actively connecting through those groups.
Of course, whatsapp was also made possible by digitisation. It was not purpose-built for learning, and the students’ whatsapp groups exclude faculty. (Yes, we were explicitly told that we are not welcome – that part of the purpose of those groups was to complain about us!) Who knows what happens in those groups. As faculty, we observe what appears to be epidemics of odd methodological decisions, and suspect that the origins of those epidemics can be traced back to a whatsapp conversation.
But what we cannot deny is that there is a community of new scholars who would not have existed without the internet. We know that students are able to get better supervision than they would have been able to get in their home countries, and we know that they feel agentic enough to craft a way of staying connected that makes sense to them.
As faculty, we have had to learn. We still do not know how to accurately estimate the “teaching time” for an online class. Shaky supervisory relationships tend to falter across distance, and we have learnt that managing the delicate balance between challenge and support is harder across space.
It has been possible to train people so that they are prepared for the process of knowledge creation, even when they continue to work and support family in less developed countries. The digital tools did not always work as expected, and in the end, the process worked because the students and faculty were resourceful and able to come up with solutions to technical and other problems along the way. PhD students are not the typical intended beneficiaries of a digitising economy in a developing country. It is hardly surprising that intellectually gifted and motivated people were able to overcome the technical challenges that stood in their way.
But it matters that the intellectual centre of gravity of a region is inside the region. A region where knowledge always comes “from elsewhere” is unlikely to develop. The evolution of digital tools and acceptance of digital practices had resulted in it being possible to – from inside Africa – train a growing cohort of scholars who are trying to make sense of business and management in Africa. There can be no doubt that in that instance, digital’s development potential was realised.