Beyond tooling-up with technology: Evolving education in the Digital Era

Research indicates that the more educated a country’s citizenry is, the higher its GDP per capita and the more prosperous its economy (Bah, 2023). For this reason, it’s crucial for countries to ensure that their efforts in the education sector are effective. In South Africa, it’s estimated that 5.9% of adults have attained at least a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is significantly lower compared to the United States, where 35% of adults have attained tertiary education qualifications (Khuluvhe and Ganyaupfu, 2022). Even when compared to other middle-income countries, South Africa has been left behind, with 16% of Mexicans, 16.5% of Brazilians and 9.4% of Indonesians boasting degrees (Khuluvhe and Ganyaupfu, 2022). While increasing access and enrolments will go some way to addressing South Africa’s shortfall, the real obstacle to economic prosperity is the country’s low graduation rate.

In South Africa, only 25% of those aged between 18 and 24 years are enrolled in higher education institutions, and a mere 22% of these students will graduate (Cowling, 2024; and Marwala and Mpedi, 2022). Of even more concern is that only 22% of graduates will achieve an undergraduate degree in the minimum three years required, while 39% will take four years and 59% will take six years (Marwala and Mpedi, 2022). Addressing these graduation rates in South Africa will require relooking at and redefining our approach to education.

Technology has become a key driver of change in the education sector, allowing for unprecedented disruption and innovation, and redefining how knowledge is shared and consumed. A number of groundbreaking tools have been developed that impact educational technology, including artificial intelligence, blockchain and videoconferencing platforms. However, are we really doing anything differently in the education sector, or are we simply tooling up with technology? Educational technology should not be about merely enabling digital learning or adopting new tools; rather, it should encompass a fundamental transformation in education. To quote Bozkurt et al. (2023: 62), ‘the leading role of human educators in education should not be underestimated, and the supporting role of technology, no matter how advanced it is, should not be over-exaggerated’.

Long before educational tools were introduced into the field, and long before teaching became a recognised profession, teaching and learning centred around the community. People learned socially in their environments. Young hunters would learn hunting skills from their elders, and their senses would be primed for noise and action, alerting them even to changes in the direction of the wind. They would constantly be thinking, questioning and making deductions. These young hunters acquired skills from their elders through a process of inquiry and social interaction.

As time went on and society evolved, education gradually became more formalised. The first professional teachers are recorded in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley and Ancient Greece, the latter of which was the so-called birthplace of the Socratic approach to teaching (Eskelson, 2020; and Moumouni et al., 2024).

During the Middle Ages, teaching centred around religious institutions, including monasteries and cathedral schools, with education reserved for the elite. However, during the Renaissance, classical education emerged, and teaching was extended beyond the clergy to include the emerging middle class. Then, during the initial Industrial Revolution, education was once again expanded and opened to all classes of people, resulting in the emergence of the current model of education, where teachers inform and students listen.

There is no question that education has come a long way: it has been institutionalised, professionalised, standardised and specialised, and formal curriculums have been developed. Arguably the most important benefit of this evolution has been the massification of education, including the massification of higher education.

The downside of this massification has been the entrenchment of a particular teaching methodology – the so-called ‘sage on the stage’ – where a teacher presides over a group of students. This model is based on the idea that the teacher or lecturer is the bearer of all knowledge, while the student is a passive receiver of information in the learning process. Although this may be effective in some teaching contexts, this is not a natural way of learning, as established previously.

Humans are the only species that remove their offspring from their environment in order to teach them didactically and passively about their environment, by people who are not necessarily part of that environment. Yet, it is part of the human DNA to construct meaning and knowledge through inquiry and social collaboration within our communities and environment.

Given the lack of success of our current education system, as evidenced by the low graduation rate in South Africa, it is crucial that the next epoch of teaching goes beyond simply using the innovative tools made available through today’s technology. We need to transition teachers from being knowledge custodians to being knowledge supporters. In other words, teachers need to become mentors, coaches and guardians of psychosocial well-being. They need to become ‘guides on the side’, as opposed to ‘sages on the stage’.

In a world of ubiquitous information, we need teachers to be human, and to teach their students to be human, which is done through a community of inquiry approach, and not simply by adopting new tools. While technology undoubtedly enhances the educational landscape, our focus should be on transforming our approach to teaching. As Steve Durbin (2021) puts it, technology can empower us in many ways, and it can be an incredibly useful multifaceted tool, but it is just a tool; it needs a person to wield it effectively’.



Bah, I. A. (2023), ‘The relationship between education and economic growth: A cross-country analysis’. Research, Society and Development 12(5): 1–14.

Bozkurt, A., Xiao, J., Lambert, S., Pazurek, A., Crompton, H., Koseoglu, S., Farrow, R., Bond, M., Nerantzi, C., Honeychurch, S., Bali, M., Dron, J., Mir, K., Stewart, B., Costello, E., Mason, J., Stracke, C. M., Romero-Hall, E., Koutropoulos, A., … and Jandrić, P. (2023), ‘Speculative futures on ChatGPT and generative artificial intelligence (AI): A collective reflection from the educational landscape’. Asian Journal of Distance Education 18(1): 53–130.

Cowling, N. (2024), ‘Gross tertiary education enrollment ratio in South Africa from 2012 to 2021’. Statista [website] <> accessed 8 May 2024.

Durbin, S. (2021), ‘Technology Is Just A Tool: Why People Are The Heart Of Everything We Do In Business‘. Forbes [website] <> accessed 8 May 2024.

Eskelson, T. C. (2020), ‘How and Why Formal Education Originated in the Emergence of Civilization’. Journal of Education and Learning 9 (2): 29–47.

Evans, D. (2021), ‘Education Technology for Effective Teachers’. Center for Global Development [website] <> accessed 7 May 2024.

Khuluvhe, M. and Ganyaupfu, E. M. (2022), FACT SHEET: Highest Level of Educational Attainment in South Africa. Pretoria: Department of Higher Education and Training.

Marwala, T. and Mpedi, L. (2022), ‘If we want to fix our economy, we must increase university graduation rates’. Daily Maverick [website] <> accessed 8 May 2024.

Moumouni, A., Riché, P. and Swink, R. L. (2024), Britannica [website] ‘Education in the earliest civilizations’. <> accessed 8 May 2024.

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