No contact teaching at universities — but department launches ambitious online plan

30 April 2020 - 19:42 By STHEMBILE CELE
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Higher education minister Blade Nzimande.
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande.
Image: GCIS

The president’s national command council on Covid-19 has opted not to resume contact learning for the 2020 higher education academic year during level 4 of the lockdown.

The higher education and training department will, instead, embark on an ambitious plan to distribute learning devices and facilitate partnerships with data service providers to provide for some semblance of online learning.

The only exception will be students in their final year of clinical training — medical students in the main — who can learn under strict conditions so that they can plug into government’s fight against Covid-19.

Minister Blade Nzimande said that regular campus activity posed a risk to the health of students.

“The risks of a return to normal campus-based activity for thousands of students and staff are simply too great and cannot function successfully outside of the national context of a general lockdown. Universities and Technical Vocational Education & Training (TVET) colleges do not operate in a vacuum, but in a historically specific context,” Nzimande said.

“Against this background and with the endorsement by the national command council, we have decided that the current period, from May 1 until SA transitions into a lower Covid-19 risk phase, must be used to put a number of critical interventions in place across the PSET [post-school education and training] system.

“This includes, developing and implementing effective multimodal remote learning systems (digital, analogue and physical delivery of learning materials) to provide a reasonable level of academic support to all our students at all institutions to resume academic learning and teaching support.

“As we are in an unprecedented emergency, we have to use all available tools to reach our students, fully cognisant that it will not substitute the need for contact learning when conditions permit. This we will do making sure that no student or institution is left behind.”

Nsfas students — about 730,000 in total — will all be provided with laptops, but government is still without a plan for those who are yet to be allocated funding or form part of the “missing middle”. This refers to a bracket of students who, according to a means test, are too wealthy for NSFAS but whose families do not earn enough to secure bank loans.

Nzimande said he has begun looking into partnerships with banks to provide loans for those students at the beginning of the academic year. He said the engagements were ongoing. In the interim he recommended students look for loans from banks and said the department would also go and “beg from good Samaritans”.

The minister also conceded that it would be difficult to find a supplier that could supply hundreds of thousands of laptops in one go, meaning that they would have to be distributed in phases.

On the matter of connectivity, the department would work with network providers to provide data to students. It would also be assisted by the Centre for Industrial and Scientific Research to map out network stability in different districts.

“The department, assisted by the CSIR, is working on developing a geospatial model to map the levels and quality of connectivity, bandwidth and distribution of learning and co-learning centres in various districts throughout SA, including municipal and other private facilities that might be used by students during this period.

“In addition, CSIR is modelling the ‘carrying capacity’ of our universities and Technical Vocational Education & Training (TVET) colleges in the scenario where it would be safe to return certain groups of students, and within the national command council Covid-19 regulatory parameters. I have indeed mobilised both my departments to support these efforts.”

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