Maverick Citizen OP-ED

Nelson Mandela University’s conundrum – online teaching when 35% of students don’t have digital access

By Cheryl Foxcroft and Samuel Bosire 23 April 2020

Port Elizabeth: Nelson Mandela University. (Photo: Flickr / Zug55)

Universities are having to make seismic shifts in the way they teach during the Covid-19 pandemic. But what do you do when 35% of your students don’t have access to the internet, laptops or smartphones – as is the case at Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape?

The need for rapid digital transformation in higher education has been given a shot in the arm by the global Covid-19 pandemic, described by risk management experts as a black swan event – rare, but high in impact.

In light of the critical role that information and communication technology (ICT) plays in enabling continuity of learning and business in the crisis, all universities and colleges in South Africa and worldwide need to prioritise the technologies required for a seismic structural shift in higher education. 

Calls for online learning solutions to be provided to students are now en vogue and our universities and colleges are working hard on strategies and solutions to achieve the end-goal of catching up and completing the 2020 academic year. But the truth is that there was limited time to prepare for the lockdown, from 26 March, and, as the academic calendar ebbs away, previously muted fears of a potentially lost year are strongly audible, with students and staff expressing their anxiety.

To address this, growing numbers of universities in our country and worldwide have shifted or are shifting to online learning and teaching, with platforms that previously supplemented face-to-face lectures becoming the main learning portal.

Puritans with a bias for quality in online learning are grappling with the practical reality of “going live” so quickly. The pressure is being felt even in institutions where blended learning (a hybrid of contact and technology-enhanced learning and teaching) was already rapidly being adopted, long before Covid-19.

The scale and speed at which the sector has been required to digitally transform since the start of the pandemic has been described as “emergency remote teaching and learning”. Thankfully, the higher education sector has witnessed great generosity from software vendors that have provided a slew of tools and platforms for teaching and learning at no cost – at least for now. Telecommunications companies are augmenting these efforts by providing free or zero-rated access to selected teaching and learning sites.

Time is limited, not only for expanding digital access, but also for content creation and course design. Strict adherence to best practices, such as requiring at least nine months to design and deliver online courses, have been challenged by reality.

Many lecturers are anxious and stressed about facilitating learning digitally as it moves them out of their comfort zone of mainly using contact teaching. All lecturers are on a crash course on how to teach and facilitate digital learning.

At the same time, it is only a partial solution for South Africa because the assumption that a typical student is able to work on a laptop or smartphone in an environment with access to data and connectivity, has been solidly debunked.

Take Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape as an example. Many of our students live in the townships, informal settlements and rural areas where they do not have online access or a private space to study. We estimate that about 55% of our students have laptops and connectivity and a further 10% could learn via their smartphones. This means that about 35% of our students are currently not able to participate in digital learning and teaching off campus.

A “one-size-fits-all” approach, such as only adopting online learning to complete the first semester, would exclude many of our students. Given our strong commitment to social justice and equality, this is not an acceptable option for us, hence we have developed two learning and teaching pathways (and variations of these) to enable our students to complete their first semester modules and the academic year.

The pathways range from digital to face-to-face when classes resume, to a blended approach which are combinations of the two. Navigating them will take collective, ongoing effort from the university to care for and support our students and staff. We have consulted our staff and students and colleagues at other universities in South Africa and internationally and we have studied a wider range of articles on teaching during times of disruption. We are now in the preparation phase and the pathways will start on 28 April.

A summary of the pathway approach is as follows: Pathway 1 learners (those with suitable devices – laptops and smartphones – and connectivity) will complete most of their learning digitally. This makes it possible for Pathway 2 learners to get greater access to intensive face-to-face teaching when students return to campus. It also serves the purpose of reducing numbers in our venues for social and physical distancing purposes.

It is daunting to adapt to online learning, and our Pathway 1 learners will take a compulsory preparatory module on digital learning that our learning development staff worked around the clock to design in the past few weeks. It includes helping learners to adapt mindsets to learn effectively online, and how to develop a schedule for themselves in the absence of a prescribed timetable. For example, if students need to complete six modules and a test in a week, they need to plan how to achieve this. They need to know how many hours they should spend on each module, and how to organise their schedule.

Pathway 2 learners will have preparatory sessions to enable them to re-ignite their learning when they return to campus. Lecturers will stay in contact with students in both pathways during lockdown to encourage them and address queries and concerns. There will also be a hotline to call for all queries. This will be particularly useful for students living in areas with limited or no telecommunication network coverage as lecturers will be unable to contact them via email, SMS, or WhatsApp. Keeping connected is so important during this time when many people feel isolated.

For students on both pathways, tutors, supplemental instruction leaders, academic advisers, student success coaches and counsellors will provide online and, when possible, face-to-face learning and psycho-social support to help students to adapt to new ways of learning and to succeed.

To ensure they deliver the best possible lectures, our lecturers are working with our learning and teaching experience development teams and ICT services. A range of resources has been made available, including the recently curated Online Teaching 101 Module on our university’s Moodle learning management system.

The ease with which any institution transitions to operating remotely using digital platforms is directly proportional to the number of years of deliberate planning and development they have invested in people, technology and support infrastructure. In a nutshell, wherever higher education institutions might be on this curve, they need to radically ramp up their digital transformation strategies. 

The fact is that the ground of online learning or e-learning has shifted irrevocably. This transformation will not produce the desired outcome unless barriers to participation are eliminated and no student is left behind.

This pandemic has presented an opportunity for South African universities to demonstrate resilience and innovation, with digital transformation as the vehicle. In our view, the herculean task of salvaging the academic year is possible in partnership with government, the private sector and communities. The matter of digital access has demonstrated that so much more can be achieved so much faster when we all work collaboratively.

We are committed to walking this uncharted road together. And, when we finally complete the 2020 academic year, we will pause to look back over the rocky terrain we have traversed. We will see the courage, creativity, intelligence, agility and grit we mustered during and after lockdown to get the impossible done. DM

Professor Cheryl Foxcroft is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching, at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) and Dr Samuel Bosire is Chief Information Officer at NMU.

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