This paper considers the role and challenges of participatory research in addressing policy change in South Africa, drawing on the SARiHE (Southern African Rurality in Higher Education) project that began in October 2016 (funded by ESRC/NRF). Whilst the project includes perspectives from across nine southern african countries, the fieldwork is located in South Africa. The paper introduces the context, aims, research questions and theoretical framing before discussing participatory methodology, its purpose and efficacy in conducting research in the policy and practice context of South Africa. The paper offers reflections on the methodological challenges of the first phase of the research. It concludes by considering the potential of participatory methodologies for influencing changes in policy within universities and national bodies.
The South African government’s Innovation towards a knowledge based economy: Ten Year Plan for Africa 2008-18 recognises the crucial role of higher education in building modern South African society and as a key driver of ‘equity, social justice and democracy’ in the vision for 2030 (Dept of Science and Technology, 2007). There continues to be a significant lack of academic achievement of students from historically under-represented backgrounds but one of the most marginalised social categories, affected by historical inadequacies, is rurality, especially as it interrelates with race and ethnicity. The concept of rurality is demographic, geographic, cultural and contextual (Roberts and Green, 2013). In Southern Africa, space is a deeply political matter due to the displacement effects of apartheid and rural students are one of the most marginalised groups,attracting little attention in widening participation research to date (Mgqwashu, 2016).
There has been limited research on rural students in South Africa especially in relation to HE participation (Author2 et al, 2015). Jones and colleagues (2008) found that a multiplicity of factors affect transitions from rural areas, including geography, financial resources, schooling, and language. They suggest that it is not only students who are disadvantaged, but institutions that are not prepared to support their needs. However the study does not consider strengths those students may bring to university, or focus on the curriculum and modes of teaching delivery. Furthermore, in an increasingly digital world, technology plays a powerful role in maintaining social connections and opening up possibilities for new knowledge and modes of learning, which can challenge institutional forms of learning (Säljö, 2010).
The research questions focus firstly on the conceptual complexities of rurality. We are investigating how students negotiate transitions to university and the influence on their higher education trajectories. We examine the practices that shape approaches to learning of university students from rural areas including in relation to digital technologies. Finally we explore the challenges for students from rural contexts facing curricula which remain imbued with colonialism and inclusive alternatives that build on all (including rural) student experiences.
A sociocultural perspective on learning recognises that human actions are mediated by physical, social, cultural, historical and material means (Daniels, 2015). Schatzki (2001:11) highlights that practices are ‘embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organised around shared practical understanding’. We take this further, examining how students’ historic and current practices have contributed to the negotiation of transitions from rural contexts into and through higher education as they encounter different ‘figured worlds’ (Holland et al, 1998). Figured worlds are social encounters in which the positions of those taking part matter, they are socially and culturally organised and located in particular times and places. This perspective, based on the work of Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu, enables us to explore the influences of rural figured worlds upon the new worlds of higher education and the adaptations students make in relation to participation and studying.
Author1 & Williams, J. (2013). Students as co-researchers: a collaborative, community based approach to the research and practice of technology enhanced learning. In E. Dunne & D. Owen (Eds.), The Student Engagement Handbook, Practice in Higher Education Bingley, Emerald. 509 –525. Author1 et al. (2016). Digital Diversity and Belonging in Higher Education: A Social Justice Proposition. In E.L. Brown, A.Krasteva, M. Ranieri, (Eds) International Advances in Education: Global Initiatives for Equity and Social Justice, Volume 10. E-learning & Social Media: Education and Citizenship for the Digital 21st Century. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, N.C. Author2 et al. (2015) Institutional Context Matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African Higher Education. Higher Education, 69 (2) 315 – 330. Bozalek, V. and Biersteker, L. (2010) Exploring Power and Privilege Using Participatory Learning and Action Techniques. Social Work Education. 29(5) 551-572. Daniels, H. (2015). Mediation An expansion of the socio-cultural gaze. History of the Human Sciences, 28(2), 34-50. Department of Science and Technology report (2007): ‘Innovation towards a knowledge based economy: Ten Year Plan for Africa 2008-18’ (http://www.esastap.org.za/download/sa_ten_year_innovation_plan.pdf) Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Jones, B., Coetzee, G., Bailey, T., & Wickham, S. (2008). Factors that facilitate success for disadvantaged higher education students: An investigation into approaches used by REAP, NSFAS and selected higher education institutions. Athlone: Rural Education Access Programme Mgqwashu, E. (2016). Education Can’t be for the ‘Public Good’ if Universities ignore rural life. The Conversation, 16 March 2016. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/education-cant-be-for-the-public-good-if-universities-ignore-rural-life-56214. Roberts, P. and Green, B. (2013) Researching Rural Places: On Social Justice and Rural Education. Qualitative Enquiry. 19 (10) 765-774 . Rohleder, P., & Thesen, L. (2012). Interpreting drawings: reading the racialised politics of space. In B. Leibowitz, L. Swartz, L. Nicholls, P. Rohleder, V. Bozalek & R. Carolissen (Eds.), Community, self and identity: educating South African university students for citizenship. Cape Town: HSRC Press. 87–96 Säljö, R. (2010). Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 53–64. Schatzki, T. (2001) ‘Introduction’, in T. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina and E. von Savigny (eds) The Practice Turn to Contemporary Theory. London. Routledge.1-14.
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