Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a profound effect on several spheres of our daily lives, and will continue to do so in the months to come. One of these spheres is that of education. Since January 2020, the virus has altered the manner in which millions of learners across the globe are taught.
As the virus spread across the globe, countries implemented restrictions in teaching to slow the infection rate. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projected that more than 421-million learners from 39 countries had already been affected by school closures by mid-March 2020. South Africa followed suit. All schools have been closed since March 18 and learners have been forced into stopgap home-schooling situations to ensure that the academic programme continues.
Considering that we are being inundated by news reports and social media posts that highlight threats associated with Covid-19, it is pertinent to direct attention to opportunities associated with the global virus pandemic. Covid-19 may very well prompt pundits and policymakers to identify and introduce novel solutions to reform the educational landscape, particularly with regard to the trajectory of digital learning.
The quality of digital learning is heavily dependent on the level and quality of learners’ digital access. The Digital 2020 Global Overview Report shows that nearly 60% of the global population has access to the internet. Although Google classrooms, accompanied by parent portals, on tablets are the norm in some countries, more often than not this is not the case in developing countries, such as South Africa, where learners have largely remained reliant on the conventional place-based teaching method.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his 2019 State of the Nation Address (Sona) that the South African government intends to provide every learner with a tablet to access digital workbooks and textbooks. Although he said that the distribution of tablets was under way in his 2020 Sona, research conducted by Equal Education shows that there are 169 schools without electricity and 804 schools with unreliable electricity supply. Ramaphosa also said in his 2020 Sona that competition authorities are working with large mobile operators to reduce the cost of prepaid monthly bundles and provide learners with unrestricted access to educational websites. This objective, however, has also not been achieved.
Based on research conducted between November 2017 and June 2019, Amnesty International published a report titled, Broken and Unequal: The State of Education in South Africa, which illustrates that the South African education system “continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that have deep roots in the legacy of apartheid”. In consideration of the above, pundits and policymakers need to tread carefully to ensure that novel solutions for education do not exacerbate inequalities associated with the South African education system as a result of the digital divide among its population.
The level and quality of learners’ digital access must be prioritised to ensure that digital learning is offered by all schools, whether considered “advantaged” or “disadvantaged”.
Nicola Vermooten is a registered industrial psychologist and PhD graduate