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2023 Wits PhD Thesis

A Critical Review of Academic Practice and Integrated Edtech Use at a South African University: The 'Real' Level

By Nazira Hoosen 

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This study aimed to investigate and understand how academics’ digital competence and critical digital pedagogy (CDP) knowledge shaped pedagogical practice. Freire (1970), Bhaskar (1978), Archer (1995) and Shulman (1987) were the main authors drawn upon in the literature. A qualitative research paradigm and a multiple case study methodology were employed by drawing on critical realism (CR) and social realism (SR) as a theoretical analytical framework. This entailed exploring structural, cultural and agential emergent properties to examine how each construct developed over time prior to synthesis.

The analysis demonstrated that the form of agential mediation to which academics were exposed explained why some of them in the same social structures and culture enacted CDP practices, while others did not. Consequently, three crucial dimensions of CDP knowledge and enactment were made visible through this study’s data and theoretical analytical framework, namely digitally-enabling structures, digitally-informed cultures and digitally-capable agency. From a pragmatic perspective, to enact CDP practice, academics need to connect the digital reality to knowledge work and epistemic practice. In this process, academic agency and digital agency would intersect, requiring reflexive and reflective practice. However, while reflection assists in recognising the need for CDP knowledge and enactment, it is insufficient on its own: embodied action and mindful critique of the world are required.

From a theoretical perspective, the concept of ‘critical’, in the literature, is related mainly to the level of social relations. This study demonstrated that there is a socio-cultural stratum and a psychological-cognitive stratum. Both these strata need to be considered as mechanisms that interact with each other to produce the outcomes of CDP practice within a digital reality. Collectively, these contributions do not translate to accepting the digital reality as a predestination. Instead, it highlighted that academics functioned in a layered HE system that required, not a singular, but a unified and pluralistic (collective) vision. Individuals and institutions are limited in their capacity to respond proactively to external change and internal complexity. Therefore, the HE system requires a rerouting from the traditional path, critically reframing learning and teaching through transformative foresight, where all parts within the system work co-terminously. One significant outcome of this study is a developmental higher education systems thinking framework focusing on the promotion of CDP practices.

critical digital pedagogy, critical realism, digitally-capable agency, digitally-enabling structures, digitally-informed cultures, reflexive practice