Poorer institutions' limited access to tech platforms worries lecturers

18 May 2020 - 14:01
By Mpho Koka
Lecturers are concerned that a move to online teaching and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic will disadvantage students from poor backgrounds across all universities and TVET colleges.
Image: Daniil Peshkov/ 123rf.com Lecturers are concerned that a move to online teaching and learning during the Covid-19 pandemic will disadvantage students from poor backgrounds across all universities and TVET colleges.

The transition to online teaching and learning during the lockdown will lead to historically disadvantaged institutions and students from poor socio-economic backgrounds being left out.

Prof Awelani Mudau, who is an associate professor in the department of science & technology education at the University of South Africa (Unisa), said it would be unethical if the 2020 academic year goes on without resolving all the challenges faced by higher learning institutions.

“Some of these historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) have been using blended learning for some time, from anecdotal evidence. This means they do have the infrastructure for online teaching and learning.

“There are students who do not have the necessary gadgets to access this online teaching and learning. Furthermore, some students do not have data or stay in far-flung areas where network connections are problematic. These are real challenges,” Mudau told TimesLIVE.

He said information about students’ living backgrounds will assist universities to help those who might face difficulty participating in online teaching and learning.

“I spoke to a colleague who is in higher management in an HDI who indicated they are busy with a survey to see how many of their students have a particular challenge, for example network coverage.

“The information will assist them in making sure all their students’ challenges are dealt with so they can have effective and reliable online teaching and learning. It would be ethically incorrect and unjustifiable if you say the HDIs must go online without ensuring all the challenges they face are dealt with sufficiently,” he said.

Mudau emphasised that staff members and students need to be capacitated so they can participate in online teaching and learning.

“I also know of a colleague in an HDI who is battling with online teaching and learning. If my colleague, a lecturer, is battling with how to provide online teaching and the necessary support to students, the students become collateral damage.”

“If colleagues are capacitated and students’ challenges, such as a lack of gadgets and network coverage, are resolved then the 2020 academic year can go on even though it is  delayed.”

Prof Kgothatso Shai, head of the department of cultural and political studies at the University of Limpopo, said the 2020 academic year should be suspended until all conducive conditions for online teaching and learning are established for all institutions.

“The reality is that most universities would only be experimenting with e-teaching and learning during this time of crisis, and that renders it wrong for the 2020 academic year to be continued through arbitrary means.

“Even though it is in line with international best practices, it was not rolled out in South Africa prior to the Covid-19 pandemic simply because South Africa is still lagging in terms of technological advancement and access compared to our Western counterparts,” Shai told TimesLIVE.

Shai said the rollout of online teaching and learning will negatively affect poor black students who live in overcrowded spaces and in areas with poor network coverage.

“The universities that claim full readiness to switch to e-learning are simply engaged in a narrow and self-serving public relations exercise. Many poor black students, regardless of institutional affiliation, live in already congested homes which do not provide an enabling environment for e-learning. The signal strength of the network in some parts of South Africa is too weak to allow for uninterrupted e-learning,” he said.

Shai called for the higher education department to come up with inclusive initiatives that can be used to save the academic year.

“Instead of South African universities racing to save the 2020 academic year, like it is done overseas, the sector ought to immediately and collectively invest in secure and efficient technological conferencing platforms that allow for interactive teaching and learning.”

Prof Barry Hanyane, a lecturer in North-West University’s (NWU's) school of social and government studies, said the move to online teaching and learning will disadvantage students from poor backgrounds across all universities and TVET colleges.

“Students from poor backgrounds with no access to their own resources are likely to suffer more disempowering realities in the corridors of higher education institutions, including universities, colleges and TVET colleges,” Hanyane told TimesLIVE.

However, Hanyane cautioned against suspending the academic year, citing this is an opportunity for the higher education sector to address inequalities in higher education.

“The 2020 academic year should be considered as a bedrock to experiment with online learning, given the amount of evidence that recently surfaced from modelling systems in relation to Covid-19. Voices of authority suggest  Covid-19 is likely to be with us at least until next year. To think of postponing the 2020 academic year could proof wasteful and futile,” Hanyane said.

“I hold the opinion that an opportunity approach focus should be applied to address inefficiencies in higher education, train staff in online teaching and learning, equip the high education infrastructure with the necessary resources linked to the technological use of concomitant resources, establish and implement online friendly systems of assessment management and so on,” he said.

“The 2021 academic year should be used to implement the aforementioned preparations activities and the subsequent funding model for higher education should be adjusted in response to the new normal.”

Some universities like NWU, Wits University, Rhodes University and the University of the Free State, to mention a few, rolled out orientation of online teaching and learning at their respective institutions from April 20.

A few institutions, including NWU and Rhodes University, started online classes on May 4.

On April 30, higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande said his ministry will from May 1 until South Africa transitions into a lower Covid-19 risk phase, put critical interventions in place across the Post Schooling Educational Training (PSET) system. He said this will involve implementing multi-modal remote learning systems (digital, analogue and physical delivery of learning materials) to provide a reasonable level of support to all students at all institutions to resume academic learning and teaching support.  

The minister said 14 out of 26 public universities will struggle with the transition to online learning, and said only 20% of TVET colleges can afford online education.

The minister said the department took a decision not to resume with campus-based activities at all public and private universities and TVET colleges during the level 4 lockdown.