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Connectivity can bring quality education to all

Equitable access to educational opportunities for all South Africans, coupled with enhanced chances of academic success – will we be able to deliver on this vision of the National Development Plan (NDP) in the next 15 years?

It was with this challenge in mind that I attended the policy forum hosted by International Council for Open and Distance Education and Unesco in Bali late last year. Senior management in higher education gathered to discuss, among other things, the contribution of technology-enhanced higher education to the future education agenda and to the development of 21st-century sustainable societies. Our discussions focused on broadband connectivity and its potential to bridge education divides, transform learning and improve skills for a globalised economy.

As an educator and sociologist, I shared in the discussions of the forum with guarded enthusiasm and cautious optimism. Unisa recently learnt the hard way how crippling the lack of affordable broadband connectivity can be. It has severely hampered Unisa’s ability to turn traditional distance learning into full-scale online education on our journey towards a definitive e-learning model.

Hence the university has had to pursue a blended learning model across our academic offering. In practical terms, this means that some modules are offered through the traditional mode of printed courseware and others are available online – two entirely different learning modalities.

The dire consequences of this hybrid model were comprehensively demonstrated during the industrial action last year by post office workers. Poor access to affordable broadband and information technology services mean that a significant number of our students, who still interact with the university by post, could not submit assignments on time (not to mention receive study materials) and assessed assignments and assignment solutions did not reach them in time to help them prepare for the final exams.

It required innovative internal measures to safeguard the integrity of our academic programme and continue to provide a modicum of support for our students.

One is not unmindful of South Africa Connect, the country’s national broadband policy, which aims to provide a high-speed network with a national roll-out that will enable affordable connectivity and internet access to all citizens. The reality, though, is that major sections of the population, now and for the foreseeable future, will not benefit from this, given the lack of clarity on the roll-out of national broadband infrastructure.

In the broader context of education in our country, there is no gainsaying the anticipated increase in student enrolments in higher education in the coming years. The white paper on post-school education and training anticipates a shift from 937?000 enrolments in 2011 to 1.6-million in 2030, which will require more higher education institutions.

Yet funds are dwindling and there are significant spatial and human resource constraints, as well as infrastructural limitations. And this does not even begin to engage with the perennial cloud of poor standards in our basic education system.

Despite these realities, or precisely because of these realities, the already huge demand for higher education in this country and across the continent is ever increasing. In the longer term, it will have a direct effect on government’s vision of delivering, by 2030, a higher education sector that is, first, able to support the alleviation of poverty and, second, to reduce inequality by contributing to rising incomes, higher productivity and the shift to a more knowledge-intensive economy, as expounded in the NDP.

The Unesco forum deliberated on the three major challenges facing higher education now:

•?The need to improve participation in, and the quality of, higher education, with particular emphasis on developing countries;

•?The importance of preparing a new generation of students who demand a higher education experience that is relevant, accessible, flexible, innovative and employment-oriented; and

•?The obligation to respond to the massive unsatisfied demand for higher education.

Global leaders in education were unanimously of the view that the growing demand for accessible, affordable, high-quality higher education can only be met by the adoption of open education strategies supported by commitments to open up educational resources, research and educational innovation.

Harnessing digital technologies to foster inclusive and more relevant lifelong learning systems must become a policy goal for all countries worldwide.

The gathering resolved that access to and success in open, online and flexible learning provides both good opportunities and viable solutions to the pressing development challenges and needs that confront so many 21st-century societies.

The forum called on governments to create favourable frameworks and comprehensive policies to enable and encourage technology-enhanced learning. It emphasised the need for incentives to modernise education, in particular to open up education by way of open educational resources and open access.

Linked to this is the appropriate provisioning to support capacity building.

It is encouraging but ironic that, as the policy forum deliberated in Bali on the role of broadband and connectivity in delivering on the higher education demands of our time, the deputy minister of telecommunications and postal services, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize, addressed an imbizo in Ulundi, saying: “Our SA Connect policy places the department in a position to co-ordinate and support the targets to achieve 100% broadband penetration by 2020 as well as transforming 70% of all front-line service to e-service by 2019.”

These benchmarks provide a glimmer of hope for education (and service delivery in general) in South Africa, because the government’s present policy on broadband, in its current formulation, is rather vague on the deliverables and milestones.

It broadly identifies the prioritisation of broadband connectivity to educational institutions, health clinics, government departments, research centres and an array of other economic projects such as co-operatives and small businesses.

The deputy minister’s statement gives us a date towards which to aim, but it leaves us with precious little time to assist in writing the new story of education of our country by 2030.

There is an urgent need for government to expedite the expansion and implementation of the broadband spectrum.

Without it, institutions of higher learning will be thwarted in their efforts to ensure equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all over the next 15 years. There is a policy, but what is hugely important is an implementation plan – and concerted action to achieve its goals. Without this collective commitment, the digital divide will remain a development divide.

Professor Mandla Makhanya is the principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa. Information on the Policy Forum is available at

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