Remote studying during a global pandemic: Students wrestle with online learning

Sehlomeng Sefali, a second-year BA development and environmental studies student at Stellenbosch University, who spent a portion of last year struggling to learn remotely without a laptop, smartphone and Wi-Fi. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

Learning during a global pandemic is an uphill battle for many university students – from not having access to the technology they need to access resources to mental health struggles sparked by loneliness.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Sehlomeng Sefali starts off describing her experience of learning during lockdown by relating how she felt at the time: anxious, overwhelmed and lonely.

Her June examinations were drawing near and she was unprepared. With no laptop, smartphone or WiFi for part of the year, she had been struggling to learn remotely.

For Sefali, much was lost when campus life was interrupted because of the onset of Covid-19. Like many first-year students, she had had plans.

“It stole our chances of making friends; of exploring. I didn’t have a first year at all,” she told DM168.

Sefali’s experience of studying during the Covid-19 pandemic mirrors that of thousands of other higher-education students across South Africa.

DM168 reached out to students through the JustKidding Instagram account, asking them to share their experiences of studying online. The response was overwhelming.

Students interviewed from universities across the country said that the implications of remote learning – the distance they felt from their peers, the lack of resources and the little to no time spent in lecture halls – continued to hinder their quality of learning.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March last year, higher-education institutions were abruptly forced to alter their methods of teaching and learning. And so began the online-education conundrum.

The strategy of emergency remote learning, which had to be implemented by South African universities, meant that for much of the 2020 academic year, students were expected to learn from home, accessing study material through online portals.

Some have found learning online to be beneficial, citing an increase in free time that came with the deviation from the strict regimen of being on campus.

But the vast majority of students have encountered myriad obstacles. From struggling to understand assignments and having an unsuitable and distracting learning environment to not having stable internet access, the challenges for students have been immense.

But the disaster has been lopsided and unequal. Operating online had a disproportionately negative effect on students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, especially those who did not have easy access to technology.

And, over a year into the pandemic, not much has changed.

At the start of the 2021 academic year, many higher-education institutions opted for a blended-learning approach, which meant that a certain number of students could return to campus for limited, physically distanced classes.

But as Covid-19 once again tightens its grip as the Third Wave gains momentum, universities are shifting back online, barring some in-person exams.

A spike in misconduct cases in 2020, directly related to online exams and tests at institutions, is one reason behind the push for in-person exams.

There was an increase in cheating in online assessments last year, said both Prof Lis Lange, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), and Martin Viljoen, spokesperson for Stellenbosch University.

Several higher-education institutions also recorded an overall increase in students’ module pass rates and marks in 2020, compared to the previous year.

“The performance of students has remained steady over the past year, in line with the trends of previous years. Overall, there has been a small improvement in student performance,” said Shirona Patel, spokesperson for the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

Nelson Mandela University (NMU) also noted that 2020 had been one of the institution’s most “successful” years academically.


Sefali, now a second-year student at Stellenbosch University, is just one of thousands of students who was thwarted in her studies by a lack of access to technology.

When she was forced out of her university accommodation and back into her family home in Kraaifontein in March last year, she struggled to complete her online assignments and attend online classes on her aunt’s smartphone.

She had no laptop or WiFi and, as she thought her stay at home would be brief, she had left her textbooks at her accommodation on campus.

“At that time I had nothing – I think I only had my two books with me,” she said.

To get back into her accommodation to fetch her books required extensive admin and, by the time Sefali was able to collect them, it was July. She had already had to write some examinations without her books.

In April 2020, Stellenbosch University announced that socioeconomically disadvantaged students could apply to loan a laptop from the institution to assist them with their online education.

“I applied for a laptop, but I struggled to get one because I stay in a township,” Sefali said. “The delivery people couldn’t find my house and said they didn’t feel safe in the area, so they left.”

After much correspondence, she eventually met the delivery company at a local school to receive her device. But Sefali’s technical troubles did not end there.

Most higher-education institutions provided students with monthly data bundles. Stellenbosch gave students in need 30GB of data (10GB during the day and 20GB at night).

But, said Sefali, “this was not enough”. She described how she would sometimes have to wake up after midnight to study using her night-time data allocation.

“I didn’t even have money. I didn’t have money for food, so I couldn’t even afford to buy my own data – 30GB was never enough,” she said.

Sefali said she didn’t know how to use a laptop properly, which also prevented her from working effectively online.

Having been taught only the basics during her computer-skills module, Sefali said she found it difficult to submit tests and assignments within the given time period.

“Now I’m doing my second year, yet I know nothing about my first-year modules, some of which I am repeating because of online learning,” she explains.

“For some people, it was fair, but for other people like me, it was not. I believe that if I was on campus, I would have done better.”

The value of the physical lecture hall, especially for students with inadequate working environments, cannot be overstated.

“No higher-education institution has the power to change the socioeconomic conditions in which students live. And the structural inequality of the country has served students in implacable ways since the start of the pandemic,” said UCT’s Lange.

Sefali said her home in Kraaifontein was not conducive to online learning. For six months, she had to study in a one-bedroom household, which she shared with seven other family members.

“I was forced to be there,” she said. “I was forced to adapt to the situation.”

When she returned to her campus accommodation on 1 September last year, she thought the change in location would assist her learning. But, for Sefali, the loneliness of her residence room was almost unbearable.

Being a chronic asthma sufferer meant strictly following Covid-19 protocols and she was forced to keep her distance from her peers. “I was in my room, not allowed to go out, to see friends,” she said. “I still had no motivation.”

Shared struggle

What Sefali was experiencing was a shared struggle. Out of her friendship circle of four, she is the only one who has continued with her studies this year.

Trapped between the technological burdens of an online education and the financial hardships of the lockdown, her friends decided that studying was no longer a viable option.

“My friends, they were struggling the same,” she said.

Along with most other higher-education institutions, Stellenbosch University did not reduce tuition costs in 2020.

The university has, however, attempted to ease its students’ financial struggles by reducing the increase of the annual tuition and accommodation fee for the 2021 academic year. Stellenbosch’s tuition fees increased by 3.66% for both undergraduate and postgraduate students in 2021, as opposed to the 4.7% increase proposed by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, said Viljoen.

Other institutions such as Wits and UCT have not charged students for non-tuition services that were not rendered in the 2020 academic year.

This year, despite attending in-person classes twice a week, Sefali said that “nothing has changed” regarding the quality of her learning. June exams are drawing near and, again, she feels she is not prepared.

Continuing her second year in BA development and environmental studies, her workload is full with three additional modules carried over from last year.

“Now it’s exam time, [and] I’m not writing. I’m not writing at all. All I know is that I’m not ready,” she said.

What other students are saying about remote learning

“Covid-19 has been hard on everybody at university, but like always, neuro-atypical people have had it even worse.

For those of us with learning difficulties who found it challenging before the pandemic, university has become nearly impossible, and that has had a huge affect on our mental health.” Beatrix Borchers, third-year student at Stellenbosch University.

Beatrix Borchers, third-year student at Stellenbosch University. (Photo: Supplied / Beatrix Borchers)

“I feel like the university’s response to Covid-19 has been very inadequate. Last year, we were in emergency remote teaching that limited our work hours, and everything was online, we didn’t really have in-person assessments and we had to do everything from home.

This year, they just changed the acronym – now it’s physically distanced learning instead of emergency remote teaching. The workload is much more, [and] there’s no extra support.” Ethan Coetzee, second-year student at the University of Cape Town.

Ethan Coetzee, a second-year student at the University of Cape Town. (Photo: Supplied / Ethan Coetzee)

“At first I enjoyed it a bit because I could set my own schedule. But as it progressed, I think, losing that structure that [university] gives you made it a bit more difficult.

Being at home … my disturbances are quite frequent compared to when I was actually on campus.” Njabulo Mabena, third-year student at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Njabulo Mabena, third-year student at the University of Witwatersrand. (Photo: Supplied / Njabulo Mabena)

“This year is a bit better because I got used to it from last year, and found last year quite difficult. [Last year], we only attended on-campus lectures for the first two months because the lockdown came and we had to go online. At first this was a struggle because I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have people to help me.” Andile Shezi, second-year student at the University of Johannesburg.

Andile Shezi, second-year student at the University of Johannesburg. (Photo: Supplied / Andile Shezi)

“The transition for me from in-person classes towards online learning was surprisingly smooth.

I’m someone who really liked going to class, I like the interaction with other people, so I was worried when everything transitioned… I was very worried about the transition process and how it would affect my studies but at this point in time it really does feel normal to me, after a year-and-a-half of online learning.” René Esterhuyse, music master’s at Stellenbosch University. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted