Sam Paddock is one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs. A few years ago, while in his thirties, he concluded a deal to sell his business, GetSmarter, for a telephone-book-sized number. Today, he not only works with GetSmarter but continues to drive South African digital innovation in education. The online learning platform offers online short courses in conjunction with some of the world’s leading universities, including the University of Cape Town (UCT). Associate professor Lis Lange, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor (DVC): Teaching and Learning, has participated in a number of national task teams on higher education and is the author of White, Poor and Angry: White working class families in Johannesburg (2003) and a co-editor of #MustFall: Understanding the moment (2018).
Sam, you have fraternal twins who are 17 months old. What would you like to teach them once they are older?
Sam: Yes, they are storm clouds of emotion right now. My wife and I are doing our best to turn them into good, civilised humans who can go about their business in ways that will impact the world positively. Up until their birth, I’ve spent the last decade alongside my brother, building GetSmarter. The company did many things but became very deliberate about doing not-for-credit, career-focused online short courses really well — first with UCT then several other universities throughout SA and, more recently, with five of the top 10 universities in the world. I am deeply passionate about learning and am very involved in education in townships and at a grassroots level.
The connection here, apart from anything else, is that UCT was a large part of GetSmarter’s start. Lis, you recently moved from the University of the Free State (UFS) to UCT as the deputy vice-chancellor of teaching and learning. What does this role entail?
Lis: What’s most exciting about the role is that I am responsible for the teaching and learning of the entire university. It’s wonderful! In terms of student unrest, I think all universities have been heavily touched by protests over the past three years. The majority of students and staff at UCT are quite demoralised—how do you work with that? Personally, I think it can be a very productive moment but it needs to be managed with great delicacy. We are talking about people that can crumble at any moment. As I am not South African and English is not my first language, I was really scared when I started but, contrary to all my expectations, the institution is far more ready to listen and is open to change because all of these things have happened.
Digital is always regarded as a disruptor, a theme that’s clearly seen in commerce and human relationships. Do you believe GetSmarter is disrupting the educational model or is it more of a complementary service?
Sam: I think we’ve already been disrupted just because we have access to Google, Wikipedia, YouTube—the internet basically. The way I consume knowledge and the way I learn today is so vastly different to when I was in matric in 1999. We’ve seen a broad disruption of the media and advertising industries, the rise of Facebook, the fall of big media companies and, certainly, the re-orientation or evolution of newspapers and magazines. So too in the realm of education: We now publish materials and consume media in a mostly didactic form. Lis: I agree that technology has already disrupted this space [of education] to an extent. However, what I find, certainly at UCT, and I can say the same about UFS, is that it has not been disrupted sufficiently. We are struggling, trying to find a balance between the good of tradition and the newness technology brings. I still believe a brilliant lecturer is a blessing and, of course, lecturing is a real challenge in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) where everything is digitised. Lecturers are not all that keen on recording their lectures because they think students won’t come to class. My argument is that if a lecturer is really good, the students will come regardless of the fact they can watch the lecture online too.
How has GetSmarter overcome these types of challenges to digital education?
Sam: Many years ago, we teamed up with a professor in the first-year bachelor of commerce programme at UCT and ran a course that was normally run face-to-face. All the students performed the same, if not better, but the students who had the greatest increase in their performance were the ones most at risk [of failing]. We surmised that one of the reasons for their increased performance was the fact that they were able to re-watch the lecture; they could go at their own pace. If you’re a second-language speaker, to have the ability to learn at your own pace is a blessing. I also think, more than anything, digital communication technology has allowed us to reshift the locus of control from the teacher to the student and, therefore, the locus of responsibility. That doesn’t mean there’s no need for people, which is one of the greatest lessons we’ve learnt at GetSmarter: One of the reasons we’ve done so well against many of our more well-resourced competitors internationally is because we’ve kept people in the pedagogy.
Lis, do you think 4IR has any significant impact on the way students are taught?
Lis: My argument is that the undergraduate curriculum at university has to undergo a radical change: What we teach, how we teach, who teaches, and the role of the student are all factors. It is putting an extraordinary amount of pressure on students and not necessarily producing what we want or need. This doesn’t mean UCT should not go online; it means the way the university uses technology to provide more effective learning is totally different. Stanford University in the United States, for example, has designed a type of tutorial in mathematics that students do online and, depending on how the student fares, it affects the next exercise given to the student and how they are guided in solving the problem. We are still far from this in SA, but have had amazing experiences in other areas, such as the whiteboard experience where physics students work on problems standing at the whiteboards during tutorials. Sam: The college of accounting at UCT has implemented a similar tutorial system for majority disadvantaged students and they are now the best-performing accounting department in the country.
Accordingly, there’s every reason to think that GetSmarter has a very bright future. Do you believe we have a reason to feel optimistic about some of the developments in digital technology and the impact these innovations will have on higher education?
Lis: It’s a bit more complicated than that. I believe we are out of sync—not just financially, but in terms of policy frameworks and operations. Nothing of what I’d like to implement is comfortably funded by the government with South Africa’s current way of funding innovation. And this is not just a UCT problem because, for everyone, the fact that government provides funding is not sufficient. The fact that online and distance learning is funded at half the price of contact education also conspires against innovation. There are amazing people at our universities; the concentration of grey matter is just a feast—but not all of these clever people are the best ones at thinking carefully about the pedagogy. When you start getting new generations of students that come from deficient schooling systems and from difference social backgrounds, you need to think of things in different terms. Sam: I think that’s really a question of strategy, which is policy. At the very core, we serve a customer and the university is a very complex animal that serves many different customers called stakeholders: The government, civil society, public goods, faculty, administrators, and the private sector. And the big question for me is what job is being done? GetSmarter is in an industry that’s like a rising tide. It used to be a case of you worked 40 years in the same company and were educated once—one career, one job. Now, that’s gone. Today, we talk about seven careers—not jobs—in one lifetime.
And people kind of balk at that and think how is that even possible. So what we really should be asking is what is the need for students who go to undergraduate level in the future? Firstly, it helps secondary school-leavers become independent and, through this, helps place them in the workforce in a meaningful way. It’s true that undergrads can do that in many ways already and will continue to do so. For example, in commerce, people are leaving high school and starting their own businesses or going directly into the workplace because they already have the knowledge of tools such as Google Analytics. These kids don’t want to spend four years at a university, which is often compounded by fees that are high or loans that take years to pay off. I feel like, very rarely, is education the end good. We’re not educating for education’s sake, we’re educating so we can help students advance their careers. Education needs to be bundled alongside networking, socialisation, and certification.
A lot has changed since the internet and mobile technology was first introduced yet we tend to think that, because we all carry one of these [smartphones], it ensures equality. Never mind the cost of data, but the ability to use this tool, whether it’s the language or the software, it’s a necessity, but not a sufficient condition to really liberate. I remember the early days of the internet, which was very utopian. Is technology really entrenching privilege or actually challenging privilege?
Lis: I think we have to answer this question all the time. Technology can be used for other purposes, but the manner in which we use it is often more entrenching of privilege. From a philosophical point of view, it is very interesting that the internet, and the manner in which the web functions, directs you into ways of thinking that permanently confirm the way in which you continue to think. Every time I go to Amazon, it tells me to read more of what I like. Nobody tells me to go and read Chinese philosophy because this is not what I’m looking for.
So it creates echo chambers. When you look at social media, its entire foundation is to connect to friends and people you already know or agree with, correct?
Lis: I have no idea. I write letters. Sam: There was a lovely line I read the other day, which, directionally, I think is totally correct: “Access to the internet makes smart people smarter and dumb people dumber”. Now that’s a very provocative statement and I don’t agree with all the direction of it, but I love what it forces you to think about. I can’t pretend to have thought deeply about the philosophical implications of the internet, but the one thing that comes to mind is the truth of how things actually work in a biological world. I think we see that, in many ways, the advantages of a powerful instrument like the internet can become entrenched over time. Yet, in the same instance, there’s never been a more powerful time for humans to be self-directing and take the reins of evolution for the whole of humankind.
This Creative Conversation has been published through a partnership with VMLY&R South Africa, a global full-service marketing agency that fuses creativity, technology and culture. Jarred Cinman serves as the CEO of VMLY&R South Africa.