ANALYSIS

Online learning to the rescue

By Stephen Grootes 6 May 2020
Caption
An empty classroom in the Western Cape. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

One of the potentially positive consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, and the lockdown that has followed it, is that we have to come up with better ways of doing things. This is likely to happen in education, and an incoming large-scale investment in online education is almost a certainty, resulting in greater capacity with more young people having access to education.

Over the past 10 years, South Africa has sometimes given the impression of sleeping through a series of crises. Almost half of the young people who enter the schooling system in Grade 1 fall out of it before matric. In the higher education segment, the problem of students failing their first year has become chronic. University vice-chancellors have spoken of how unethical it is that someone can fail first-year several times, and so take space from next generations.

From time to time there are huge disputes over the entry criteria for medical schools, as young people with seven or eight distinctions are not accepted for a place. Considering the crying need for doctors (there is plenty of evidence that we need more), this is a major problem. While there are obvious limitations on the number of people who can train in one place at one time, there may still be underused resources. Why, for example, can people with six distinctions not use the same resources to study at night, why are there not two daily shifts of students in medical schools?

The same can be said for primary schools. Many schools cannot take all of the children who want to attend them. And yet, most classrooms are only being used for eight hours a day. There could easily be an afternoon shift to ensure more children get an education (and more teachers have jobs). 

Worse, there are still over 4,000 schools in South Africa that use pit toilets, and don’t have the proper facilities to allow children to take care of themselves safely. 

And yet, just the last month has seen major changes.

At least 10 universities are now using some form of online learning, and have signed deals with cellphone networks to provide their students with free data. The institutions’ websites and other important resources are now zero-rated, allowing students to roam educational cyberspace more freely.

Considering that both MTN and Vodacom have also dropped their data prices dramatically over the past month, the world around a student wanting to learn online has changed significantly.

Last week, on Workers’ Day, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande confirmed that the entire sector was about to go this way. He told SAfm it was obvious that it was the way society and his sector needs to go. He believes it will allow more young people to access higher education.

For all of this, of course, there is an obvious need. Around the world, there has been a great increase in online education, where so much information is free (or virtually free). What will really count is applying that information in a formal way that leads to formal testing and a formal qualification. And yet, there has been no national effort to make use of it in South Africa.

Considering that there are around 10 million people in the country who are unemployed, this is an incredible oversight. Instead of focusing on these unemployed people (of whom the majority are young), we have focused on protests and frustration at several institutions accommodating fewer than 100,000 students in total.

This could well change. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught us, it is how valuable proper online networks could be. Companies, institutions and economies that cannot function with their workers or students at home will not be competitive in the future. 

This means that we now have a chance, finally, to put proper effort into online learning.

But for this to work, it is important to implement it properly. Those who oppose online education, sometimes even for legitimate reasons (that there are some students who cannot access data, or who live in areas which simply don’t have signal), cannot prevail. The fact is, it is so much easier to scale-up online education than it is to scale-up face-to-face education.

There will be many who will lament the fact that young people will be denied the experience of being on campus, or living on campus for a period of their lives. This is understandable. However, the lived experience of many of our students does not live up to that memory. The University of Fort Hare can accommodate only 50% of its students in residences, and reports of students being unable to find accommodation are rife, including claims of some students sleeping in libraries. 

Transport, of course, is another huge cost that would be done away with, as people would no longer have to travel to campus. 

Students would, should they choose so, be able to remain at home and study. One of the many things that will change in the wake of Covid-19 is that where in the world you live won’t matter nearly so much. All that will matter is reliable access to data, the great equaliser of the post-Covid-19 era.

This does not mean that schools will disappear. Younger children will need face-to-face teaching. But their elder peers, perhaps from the ages of around 12, may be able to learn more and more online. Distance education could be introduced slowly, from around the age of 11, until children become used to it. 

Some primary schools – even some in the government sector – are already doing this. The question for parents looking at prospective schools in the future might well be more about the online capability of schools rather than their equestrian facilities.

However, there are powerful vested interests that may try to stand in the way of this change. Around the world in democracies, education can be hard to change.

Many teachers and principals could find the change hard to manage. Some unions may feel they would lose their power, and many parents are likely to reflect on their own education through rose-tinted glasses. But they would surely have to accept that there is no need for their children to be taught in the same way as their grandparents were – by a human being standing in front of a blackboard. 

This is not science-fiction, rather it’s back to the future. There are many people in history who got their school qualification by correspondence. Former Chief Justice Pius Langa was one. Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke got his matric and his first two degrees through correspondence on Robben Island. 

It is so much easier now, and so much cheaper. 

The crisis we face is immense. Some of the solutions are not rocket science – merely online. DM

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