Remote learning challenges delay resumption of universities

Remote learning challenges delay resumption of universities
Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sydney Seshibedi)

Institutions of higher learning are resolute about resuming their academic programmes, but countless challenges with remote learning are impeding progress.

Only a few universities resumed their academic programme on Monday 20 April, with many students still confronted with a multitude of challenges, including access to devices, data, and enabling learning environments. 

These were emphasised as key concerns during joint proceedings before the Higher Education Committee of the National Assembly and the Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture Committee of the National Council of Provinces. 

Dr Diane Parker, director-general for university education at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) told committee members that although the department had accounted for institutional differences in plans enabling universities to resume remote teaching and learning, each institution must plan in accordance with its specific student needs. 

“The basic principle everybody agrees with is, no student should be left behind,” she said. 

The department said, although it had advised universities to only commence with online lessons on 4 May to allow enough time for preparation, some chose to resume on Monday 20 April. 

The South African Student Congress (Sasco) and student representative councils from various universities have threatened to boycott this process unless universities can ensure equitable access for all students, GroundUp reported

Democratic Alliance committee member Baxolile Nodada argued that there needed to be a coordinated approach from the department to avoid disproportionate responses. 

“Yes, we shouldn’t use a blanket approach, but there needs to be a coordinated approach, especially when universities resume with face-to-face learning,” he said. 

An Economic Freedom Fighters NCOP committee member, Slindile Luthuli, said it does not seem that the proposals put forward by the department to universities and colleges were being effectively implemented or working. 

“There are still students in rural areas that do not have devices and data, but universities are learning online.” 

And even when students can access or be provided with resources, connectivity for students in remote locations restricts learning opportunities. 

The chairperson of the National Assembly committee, Mohlopi Mapulane, suggested the department consider using existing structures such as libraries and municipal offices that can be capacitated to provide support to those students experiencing hardships with learning environments. 

“Of course, this must be done under the conditions of the lockdown and how the trajectory of the virus continues.” 

“Sector-wide possibilities are also being explored for access to learning sites on a coordinated basis for students not able to access appropriate study conditions,” Parker responded. 

TVET colleges, on the other hand, have not moved to online learning. 

Teaching and learning in technical colleges is still largely textbook-based. Although college websites have also been zero-rated, students have not been provided with data support. 

“Discussions are reaching finalisation stage,” said the acting deputy director-general for TVET education, Aruna Singh. 

Of major concern in the sector, are the stipends that the services sector education and training authorities (Setas) might not be able to pay TVET college students in work-based learning programmes. 

There are 21 Setas tasked with managing, funding and overseeing internships, learnerships and other forms of on-the-job experience and skills development. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande defended the department and said they have pleaded with Seta to not halt stipend payments to students. 

EFF committee member Thabo Keetse said, “Problems with Seta are known. Seta has never been stable. Since the beginning of the sixth administration we have been complaining about the maladministration happening in that sector.” 

One aspect not addressed during the proceedings is whether second-trimester intakes by TVET colleges will be cancelled amid the lockdown and uncertainties stemming from the pandemic. 

Universities start online learning

Although some universities have started with online learning, others have chosen to use the last two weeks of April for orientation. 

The University of Cape Town will begin with formal learning on 28 April to allow the orientation period (which started on Monday 20 April) to run for at least a week. 

The University of the Western Cape commenced with flexible learning and teaching on Monday. 

Stellenbosch University said it has loaned 1,500 laptops to students who had no access to devices and had commenced with the academic programme. 

UJ also commenced with remote learning. It has provided laptops to 4,000 students and has committed to giving each student 30GB of data per month. 

The University of the Free State has designated 20 April to 30 April as an online and transition period. 

When the lockdown is eventually eased, the department said, it would consider options to phase in physical learning. And suggestions brought forward might see universities resuming contact classes either on 1 July, 1 August, 1 September or 3 October. DM 


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