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Problems facing the academic year

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Professor Saurabh Sinha (registered professional engineer) is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, University of Johannesburg.

While there is overwhelming desire on the part of post-secondary education and training providers and students to succeed with online teaching and learning, there must be recognition that a digital divide exists and there is, more than ever before, the need for an inclusive approach.

With the world gripped by fear and uncertainties over the Covid-19 pandemic, questions are being raised as to whether the post-secondary education and training (PSET) sector will be able to complete the current academic year. As matters stand, universities are scrambling for solutions to salvage their academic programmes, having extended their Easter recess periods. And with the pandemic showing no immediate signs of abating, and with no end in sight for the national lockdown, the possibility of the education sector being thrown into further disarray looms large. An academic year straddling two years will create numerous problems. 

It is in this context that within the PSET sector, higher education institutions (HEIs) in South Africa may be best positioned to innovate and to lead online education as an alternative to contact, face-to-face teaching and learning. While HEIs certainly have this ability to innovate, the enduring problems of inequality of the broader South African society challenges this desire. Recently, I have been inundated with queries on social media or on email from our students or student leaders, and contestation is frequently about the online approach. 

I will try to contextualise this experience. In response to uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown, fear of an increase in Covid-19 cases and institutional regulations, many students returned home. And with universities now pushing for online teaching and learning, one student from Limpopo posted an image in the description of his home situation: a corrugated iron “house” he shares with his siblings and single mother. While the student is supported by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), he partially co-funds others in his household. 

The student receives a message from his university, alerting him to an announcement on the learning management system (LMS). He tries to log in through his mobile phone, but the device does not support the sophisticated interface of the LMS. He reaches a fellow student, who then forwards the circular via WhatsApp. From Johannesburg, another student tweets a screenshot; her online LMS experience is positive; and she is perusing the orientation material offered by the same university. She comments that she finally has a university education that gives her learning flexibility. For internet access, she benefits from the fibre infrastructure of the city. Yet, the experience is different from when both are in Johannesburg and seated in the same classroom, as the setting makes their situation somewhat uniform, and both acquire education from a lecturer. 

The PSET sector has deep understanding for this depicted inequality, which some lecturers have experienced first-hand, and many see hope through education. HEIs often quote Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (1995): “It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

While there is overwhelming desire on the part of PSET providers and students to succeed, there must be recognition that a digital divide exists and there is, more than ever before, the need for an inclusive approach. Aside from the digital connectivity issue, the lockdown period is one of anxiety for many. 

Within these several scenarios of this contrast, some possible solutions and proposals are worth considering by everybody involved in the PSET education delivery chain. In times like these, I must hasten to say we should not look beyond Leonardo da Vinci’s view that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Yes, I recognise that HEIs may have a more ‘sophisticated’ approach, but the focus of this article, is the PSET sector more broadly. 

First, for the PSET provider: 

Mailing lists: Mailing lists can be set up easily. For instance, there is no cost to set up a mailing list using Google Groups. There are advantages and students who have slow internet access can download files overnight. Students are then guided through the course material by way of email (easily accessible to students and the facilitator). They could also have a “group” conversation. This approach could be used, to some extent, to emulate the classroom approach. 

WhatsApp: Students and educators or facilitators are almost always on WhatsApp. Setting up a WhatsApp group is relatively easy, and students can “opt in” to join. Once a group has been set up, the settings give the administrator an option: “Invite via link”, which can be used to invite up to 255 additional students and/or tutors. WhatsApp offers options to ‘secure’ the group and so on. This immediately establishes a mode for interactivity with students and staff. It can get ‘hectic’ if many students chat simultaneously, but peer assistance will develop organically and a senior tutor (at times an alumnus may also volunteer time) can be incorporated to provide communication assistance. WhatsApp’s web interface could also assist the facilitator. One should keep to text-based content; which consumes less data, or to audio transmission/files (this, however, requires more data). Video content helps, but it is bandwidth intensive and lecturers would need to navigate the interaction together with prescribed course material or compressed files (which can also be done over WhatsApp).

Localised websites: If one does not have an LMS, there are open-source options that can be set up locally. A number of education content websites, which are not heavy on data traffic, can be zero-rated by mobile providers. This may be a good way of going about it. 

Of course, some of these online techniques could also assist the basic education sector. The approach does require a combination with self-discipline and self-directed learning. The guidance of facilitators would be required to account for this stage of academic development.

Second, for the student

Data bundles can diminish quickly. To avoid this, use your mobile phone to restrict data access to Apps that enable access to education. With higher usage of data, due to the Covid-19 lockdown, there is more competitive pricing; so explore the options and keep network coverage in mind: Rain, MTN, Cell C, Telkom SA, Vodacom and FNB Connect. Some institutions have zero-rating, and this may also affect your choice of mobile provider. 

The above is largely within the “sphere of control” for many students and PSET providers. 

While it is important to acknowledge that online education is not a direct ‘replica’ of classroom education, its pedagogical mode continues to develop. For this, further capacitation is necessary. The approach to assessment, virtualisation, and other aspects of academic delivery also requires addressing. This is, however, beyond the scope of this article.

To efficiently roll out online teaching and learning, it will also require a deepening of leadership on the part of government and collaborations with mobile data providers and private sector players. 

Data access and cost: The list of essential services should include data access for those within the PSET sector. It requires government to negotiate with mobile data providers, at the highest level, and make a strategic commitment to zero-rated access to education. Zero rating means certain websites are designated for the “public good” and those accessing these do not pay. From this commitment, relevant technocrats will develop a meaningful delivery approach. Zero-rating can, however, be costly for the data provider and the PSET sector could initially be limited to text and audio. The costs may require subsidisation (this should, however, be seen as an investment) and/or a tax incentive. 

Devices: The ideal for a student is a laptop. It is important, however, to recognise that smartphones, perhaps with a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse, can offer a creative alternative. For example, a Samsung “DeX” provides a larger display. This will require public-private and possibly international partnerships. During this Covid-19 lockdown, as with the tight and excellent monitoring by the Competition Commission and other arms of government, any unfair price escalation or tenderpreneuring should be dealt with decisively.

A national LMS: While I fully recognise that some HEIs use internationally based LMS and zero-rating, this is costly for this grouping. We must recognise that South Africa is developing the SKA (the world’s largest antenna project) in the Karoo desert. Developing a localised LMS is quite within its capability and for reasons alluded to in the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PC4IR), this is something that needs to be done; South Africa must develop data sovereignty. Thus, put bluntly: there should be recognition that technical capability does exist in the country and that technical people have the ability to develop such an LMS. Perhaps as a result of this Covid-19 crisis, the PSET sector can be clustered through shared online provisioning. 

I recognise a number of other short-term demands, such as allowing for student movement or a return to residences (the “cities”). As conditions of the Covid-19 lockdown ease, these short-term interventions will help. But the focus of this article is on the online intention and also on a future where innovation, customisation and inclusivity will enable quality education and expand access. To echo President Cyril Ramaphosa’s message of Easter Sunday, South Africans are resilient people and we have the technical capability of overcoming challenges through innovation. Covid-19, as negative as it is, allows us to re-think, to re-invent, and in this approach to bring about uniquely South African and African solutions. DM

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