From Didactics to Datafication: A Critical Reflection on Virtual Learning Environments and the Production of Space


  • Taryn Bernard



datafication, higher education, postcolonialism, space, Virtual Learning Environments


When writing about transformation in higher education (HE) in South Africa, it is quite popular to mention the fall of apartheid, and perhaps also 1994, as a starting point for significant change. I, myself, have made this mistake (see Bernard, 2015). However, the recent #FeesMustFall protests highlighted that many approaches to transformation have been superficial at best, and extremely problematic at worst (Luckett & Naicker, 2019; Luckett, 2019). This is because they have done little to acknowledge the legacies that colonial modes of thinking have had, and continue to have, on the everyday lived experiences of students in spaces that still feel alienating to them. In April 2020, when the doors of South African universities closed to all, and during a swift and mass migration away from university campuses to Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), I was presented with the opportunity to critically reflect on the impact that increased use of VLEs can have on the transformation agenda in the HE sector. My approach takes up Tumubweinee and Luescher’s (2019, p. 2) argument that many initiatives aimed at transformation in HE have failed, because they do not pay sufficient attention to the where of transformation. Thus, like Tumubweinee and Luescher, I locate my reflection on VLEs in the postmodern, sociopolitical understandings of ‘space’ evident in the work of Lefebvre (1991), but more specifically his notions of conceived and abstract space. In doing so, issues of identity and coloniality are brought to the fore. My approach is critical in that it “implies possibilities, and possibilities as yet unfulfilled” (Lefebvre, 2002, pp.18‑19).