The digital learning divide

A lack of access to data and hardware means impoverished students are once again at a major disadvantage as teaching moves online during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Colleges and universities across South Africa have moved lectures online in a bid to save the academic year. But learning via the internet has exposed the digital divide between students who have access to hardware and stable internet connections and those who struggle with both.

“For students who don’t have resources and who are always hearing the dominant narrative about ‘saving the academic year’, they are struggling and the focus on completing the year overshadows a focus on wellness,” said Asanda Benya, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and a member of the Covid-19 Higher Education Working Group and the National Alliance Group.

Recently, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said students on the national financial aid scheme would receive free data and laptops “to ensure that no student is left behind”. Although some students have received data, many have not. The procurement of laptops is happening through an open tender system, and the minister has asked the public for patience while this process is under way. In the meantime, however, many of the most vulnerable students are falling behind and may not recover the lost time.

The problem with remote learning

“I’m constantly behind with my studies and I spend so much time catching up,” said Onkgopotse Modisane, 23, an honours student from the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Modisane’s laptop crashed, but because of the Covid-19 lockdown he was unable to access computer labs. Modisane has been using his phone to look up sources and type his proposal and other assignments.

For Modisane, lectures given over the online meeting platform Zoom are not effective. “The disadvantage is that due to poor connectivity, they just cut in the middle of the lecture. Sometimes the audio is not audible.”

Some students are receiving lecture material on the radio. Lesego Nawa, 22, from Mahikeng in North West, is studying at Taletso TVET College, doing her second year in the national certificate vocational programme. The institution has opted to broadcast lessons using radio platforms. But these interventions are not providing the kind of support necessary to take in complex material. “There is no kind of support I’m receiving from the campus except radio lessons, which didn’t work [for me]. I took it upon myself that I’m going to study on my own.”

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Yandiswa Galeni, 22, from Nqamakwe near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape, is an honours student at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). She says a shortage of data has meant she’s been unable to submit her assignments on time. She also battled with a lack of productivity during the lockdown. Given the chance, Galeni says, she would return to the UWC residence for the consistent Wi-Fi.

It is not only students who are suffering. Lecturers also battle with online learning platforms. “Staff are also not supported with tools to help them work online. The assumption is that we live in environments conducive to teaching and yet that’s not the case,” said Benya. “[Teaching online] takes a lot more time, requires different strategies and methods, and we are having to learn this on our feet with very little or no training at all. At UCT, we were only trained for … five hours. At other institutions, no training was offered. [Some are] only now … being trained, after weeks of remote learning roll-out.”

Through her work at the Covid-19 Higher Education Working Group, Benya has noticed that although problems differ across institutions, one thing remains the same: everyone is struggling. “What we all agree on is that the remote online learning system is not working for us and our students.” Many students are being left behind, she says. Social inequalities are widened when students have to cope with a lack of resources, consistent and reliable support systems and access to online learning.

The Public Pedagogy Group and the Black Academic Caucus at UCT have proposed alternatives to online learning, including reworking the academic year’s calendar, says Benya. “The point is, there are numerous alternatives and we need to engage with them, rework them, change the calendar if need be. But [we must] not put a curriculum and an academic calendar before lives, and also not worsen the already high socioeconomic curve as we flatten the Covid-19 curve.”

Few resources, no support

Benya says if students don’t have resources, infrastructure, support and the necessary conducive environment to engage online, the quality of the institution won’t matter: recipients will not learn. “What they are not telling parents and students is that professors have received little training. Professors are struggling in some instances to transition to online teaching. What some are doing is to simply put slides and readings online and leave the students to figure out the rest. While there is some support, it is not extensive and it does not cater to the wide range of learning needs our students have right now.”

“Remote learning is not manageable if you do not have equipment and data,” said Imameleng Masitha, 30, from Khayelitsha in Cape Town. She used her cellphone to complete academic work at Unisa. Unable to cope, Masitha has since stopped her studies. “I dropped out during Covid-19 when the connection was poor and emails would take at least two to three days to get responses.”

Many higher education staff members are also working with students to make sure that they have the basics, including food and toiletries, to survive the pandemic, says Benya. “So the challenges of online or remote teaching during a pandemic like this one are not only just about the teaching, they are also about the home environment and circumstances in which students are at. We cannot pretend that education happens in a bubble. We are here to build communities of learning and that is impossible with a limited option of migrating courses to be online.”

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For Nosipho Ntombela, 20, a third-year student from the Tshwane University of Technology, learning at home has affected her study patterns. She is battling to adapt to the change of environment from the residence in which she stayed to studying at home in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal, with her grandparents and siblings. “The home environment is not the same as a residence, where I am used to having a study desk, my room. By contrast, at home, we share the space.”

Ntombela also struggles with connectivity. “My phone is small and the storage is a problem when I have to download stuff. I have signal problems. I have to go outside to try and connect.”

“We spend several hours and much time finding [out which students cannot access online platforms],” Benya said. “This takes time, resources and it is still not enough. Some students are being left behind for reasons not of their own doing. They will end up carrying a huge debt and the personal and financial burden of being considered dropouts or failures.”

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