Nelson Mandela University: Digital know-how a critical career aid for new researchers

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Digital transformation has great potential to enhance the development of a critical mass of researchers at African universities and to help build academic and research communities on the continent, linking them to researchers and institutions in other parts of the world.

Accelerating the career progression of emerging researchers to become leading international scholars is important for achieving the development goals articulated in the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

However, early career academics not only face difficulties in finding time and funding for their research, but must also adjust to an increasingly digitalised academic environment, fuelled by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Leveraging digital transformation to advance these deserving academics is therefore key.

To spotlight this issue, in 2020 the British Council, in partnership with Nuffic Neso South Africa, commissioned a study to determine the needs of these researchers in terms of digital access, perceptions and levels of engagement.

Research revealed the immense role of ICTs and digitalisation in enhancing research and international collaboration, and the potential this has for the advancement of early career researchers.

Emerging researchers consulted had to rely on their own computers, tablets or smartphones as institutions did not provide them with these – a particular problem during the pandemic, when access to campus facilities such as offices, libraries and laboratories was limited.

Only 26% of the survey respondents had access to institution devices to enable them to utilise digital resources and continue with research projects from home.

Although most researchers were positive about digital transformation at their institutions, some said that they did not have the necessary skills to fully utilise and benefit from this.

Rapid growth in the use of ICTs and digital technologies has also been accompanied by various risks, emphasising the issue of digital safety and ethics.

Focus on the future

The study showed that digitalisation has created increased flexibility and access to research opportunities. Researchers could find viable solutions to perennial research challenges such as the high cost of conducting research, especially reaching out to key informants located far away.

The focus group discussions highlighted that moving research work online required development of specific skills for independent work. Participants agreed that a significant number of their peers and postgraduate students were struggling with the shift to online education during the pandemic due to mental health, well-being and emotional challenges.

For some participants, working online or via digital platforms seemed to be non-stop, without a break. They also noted that workdays seemed to be longer, as they were always connected and available online. This lack of boundaries resulted in feelings of being overwhelmed and digital fatigue. In addition, not being able to see colleagues and engage with them in person left a void.

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