Opinionista Wandisile Mdepa 11 May 2020

I’m not against online teaching, but what about us?

The use of learning technology or online learning is a pipe-dream for most rural students and learners.

In the past few days, I’ve experienced issues with the reliability of my network connectivity and the ever-increasing costs of data. I could consider myself relatively privileged because I used to be in full-time employment and access to WiFi was not an issue at all. I recently moved to a small town in the Eastern Cape called Whittlesea, located about 35km from Queenstown CBD.

The use of platforms such as Skype or Zoom to make video calls are a luxury, the network coverage is poor and prohibits connection not only for educational purposes but also for social reasons as my family is based in Cape Town and it is very difficult to communicate with them. We, however, keep in touch via phone calls, but the network for audio calls is also unreliable. 

I cannot but wonder how the emerging trend in higher and basic education to blend face-to-face learning with online learning in order to minimise the spread of the coronavirus at our schools, colleges and universities will affect our students. At the moment, only the privileged few in our country benefit from using technology for home schooling during this health pandemic. 

While I appreciate the efforts made by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19, particularly for the poor and destitute who are without the best medical care, there are other factors which need to be looked at, such as the geographical spread of our students in tertiary institutions across the country and public schools. The lockdown has had serious educational consequences as the majority of students in rural areas might not be able to access the internet due to network coverage and the fact that some students are using their mobile phones to access the online learning material.

Many historically disadvantaged and historically privileged universities have gone the extra mile to purchase laptops for students through the NSFAS scheme and endowments for the rich institutions, a move which is welcome. However, a question that lingers is what purpose will the purchase of a laptop and data serve if the network connection is the issue for the rural students? What about the missing middle students who do not qualify for NSFAS? Is the learning then reserved for some? 

During the lockdown, I have seen an exponential growth and reporting of technologies for online learning in Higher Education institutions, not only in South Africa, but all over Africa and the entire world. Academics have set up WhatsApp groups, Zoom and have facilitated collaborative learning groups using expensive data — under difficult times of no or sporadic network coverage.

The use of these learning technologies are, in my view, not enabling learning for all, but reveal a huge gap in an unequal society which is permeating the socio-economic space and how unequal the students are. It is unfortunate that learning through technology, for now, only benefits the children of the rich and middle class, who are mostly located in urban areas and big cities. 

Many higher education institutions have reported that mobile service providers have partnered with them to ensure that virtual learning takes place, an initiative I welcome and fully support. Sadly, the very same mobile providers are intentionally or unintentionally hiding the fact that network coverage is generally a problem. Many students are now back in their home communities where these challenges are experienced.

In addition to the connectivity problem is the lack of access to laptops by some. One university in Cape Town reported that more than 30% of its students did not have access to computers. The university will need about R38-million to assist those who do not have access. As with inequalities in society, there are also inequalities in the higher education sector and schools too, which means those who are not privileged may unfortunately be left behind in their studies. How much more so for our universities and schools in the Eastern Cape. 

The use of learning technologies is not under question as there is much literature which supports it and it is unquestionably important. However, proper learning using technology is enabled by an environment under which a student finds himself/herself. As such, I want to argue that the current environment in many rural areas in the Eastern Cape is not suitable for learning under the lockdown.

In an academic article published by Hicks, Reid, and George, there are demands for universities to provide for a larger and more diverse cross-section of the population, to cater for emerging patterns on educational involvement which facilitate lifelong learning and to include technology-based practices in the curriculum.

The lockdown has served as a harsh reminder that the South African higher education sector attracts students from diverse backgrounds with unequal access to learning technologies, internet connectivity and stable sources of income. Access to learning technologies and the internet enables learning, more especially so during the lockdown. However, it seems as if many universities are oblivious to the daily struggle of students who come from some of the deep rural areas where network coverage is a privilege. The students and communities most hard hit by lockdown as far as technology and access to the internet are concerned are from rural communities.

The Eastern Cape is largely rural with a high unemployment rate and, based on South African Social Security Service statistics, has more beneficiaries than any other province. Minister of Social Services Lindiwe Zulu was quoted in an IOL article published in August 2019 as saying that 71% of Eastern Cape social grant recipients are young people.

It would therefore be prudent for academic departments and institutions to have a deeper understanding of the different contexts and environments of students’ backgrounds when developing e-learning tools and learning technologies. For instance, Unisa online learning is best suited for the urban, rich and middle-class students, as rural students have constant internet and network coverage challenges. 

All network providers should look at these issues and install cellphone towers across the province to provide access. The Department of Basic Education should also consider partnering with local broadcasters in order to share prepared lessons for home schooling. DM

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