‘Online push sets us up for failure’

For the most of the interview Qhawekazi Mtolo’s voice disappears and reappears again.

“Sorry my network connection is terribly bad,” she says. “If it keeps on collapsing during a phone call can you imagine what it does during internet connection?”

Mtolo is a second-year law student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and is against the idea of online learning — the current plan for keeping universities working.

Coming from Harding in KwaZulu-Natal, she says as someone from a “deep, deep rural area” she knows that she will be at a disadvantage.

“The online learning will benefit the minority, who are privileged, and will not benefit the majority, who are poor, marginalised and who live in rural remote areas, like myself, with no network coverage. We will not survive it, we will not,” she said.


Universities went into early recess in March as the country went into lockdown. Some have now started their second semester. These include the universities of Cape Town (UCT), Western Cape, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela and Witwatersrand (Wits).

Some universities have made plans to provide laptops to students who do not have these devices. Wits and the University of Johannesburg also announced that they will give 30 gigabytes of data to students while at home. The University of Cape Town has agreements with two cell phone companies for zero-rated data, which will ensure free access to the university’s websites.

For students who don’t have access to the internet, UCT said it will distribute printed learning materials and USB drives so that they can keep up with their courses.

Wits’s vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, said for those students who cannot manage online learning the university will consider methods such as boot camps to ensure that they catch up once contact teaching resumes.

The universities are going ahead with these plans, despite some apparently being not entirely ready to resume the academic year.

Nelson Mandela University is still exploring ways of offering learning to all its students. In a statement on Monday, vice-chancellor Sibongile Muthwa said lecturers will use this week to contact students to determine what learning pathway is possible for each of them.

“As such, a number of initiatives are being explored in relation to creating access to the devices necessary to ensure access to online learning resources, as well as using other remote learning approaches,” she said.

The University of the Western Cape said that 30% of its student population does not have access to resources that will enable online learning and called for donations for items such as laptops and data.

Even so, acting vice-chancellor Vivienne Lawack said academic work will start on April 20. The university would also use other means such as flash drives and print to ensure that no student is left behind.

The universities of Limpopo and Pretoria have decided that they are not yet ready to re-open.

Tawana Kupe, the vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, said plans to start the second semester online on April 20 had been postponed until the university is able to provide all students with the necessary devices. The university will now resume teaching and learning online on May 4.

The University of Limpopo’s vice-chancellor, Mahlo Mokgalong, told students in a statement that the university is undertaking a survey to establish the needs of students in relation to devices and internet access.

Mokgalong said the university was also trying to secure funds to buy devices for needy students and is in negotiations for zero rating on internet connectivity. He said the university will start online learning “shortly”.

The South African Union of Students (Saus) has made it clear that it does not support online learning if some students and institutions will be left behind. It said in a statement this week that students must be allowed back to their residences where they can get access to wi-fi.

About 6000 students in the country are still living in residences, some because they come from other countries and could not get home.

Saus has also said that before adopting online learning, universities must develop digital infrastructure, train academics and ensure that students, in particular those in their first year, understand the changes.

A Wits lecturer, who asked not to be named, says the disruption caused by the pandemic happened very early in the academic year when new students were finding their way to the university environment.

The humanities lecturer says her course can easily be adapted for online learning so it will be easy for students to study online.

“But the problem is that I am teaching first-year students who are not familiar with the systems of the university in full depth,” she said. “My experience with a lot of first-years is that it is only at the beginning or middle of the second year where you see them beginning to be confident with the systems of the university.”

She added: “And also we are going through so much as a country. We are not in a normal situation, so it is a lot.”

This week alone one of her students sent her five emails within two hours. She said the student was “nervous” about something online and needed her assistance.

The lecturer fears that students are being set up for failure by just being given resources and “are supposedly going to make it work”.

A group of academics from universities around the country are calling for an alternative way of studying, based on students learning from the real world situation that they are now finding themselves in. Their paper, Public Universities With a Public Conscience: A Proposed Plan for a Social Pedagogy Alternative in the Time of Pandemic, had, as of Wednesday, received more than 250 endorsements from other academics and students.

The paper says the “unilateral implementation of online teaching and learning by education institutions will result in an academic disaster and will exacerbate the Covid-19 humanitarian disaster”.

The academics argue that neither teaching staff nor students possess the means to make this shift immediately. “Going online immediately will simply widen existing inequalities and make meaningful learning impossible for the vast majority of students,” reads the paper.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Fikile Vilakazi — one of the authors of the paper — said this week that the group is not entirely opposed to online learning, but believes higher education institutions have not thought everything through, including not factoring in the realities of people when they are at home.

She says some academics cannot send coursework to students because they, like many students, do not have data. She says most universities have not made data available to lecturers even though they expect them to share information with students online.

“Some of us do not have laptops at home because we are used to working with desktops in our offices,” Vilakazi said. “And the phones and devices we carry are not similar; not all of us have smartphones. Because there is that assumption that if you are an academic you come from an affluent community. But it is not true. So it is hard.”

She says these are things that universities have failed to consider in their rush to online learning.

Vilakazi says the system the authors of the paper are proposing will enable students to learn where they live and based on the circumstances they find themselves in during the pandemic.

She says some students are helping to distribute food parcels in their neighbourhoods, assisting their sickly family members and also teaching people about Covid-19.

This is also a form of learning, she says. “They are learning how to survive, think and respond during a crisis. That on its own is learning.”

Vilakazi says students could collect their experiences in a portfolio, produce artwork or present it in whatever format they can and their work can feed into the assessment process once universities are opened.

Briefing its parliamentary portfolio committee earlier this week, the higher education department said all academic institutions will resume the academic year on May 4, primarily through online and remote teaching. Face-to-face teaching on campus could start in September, after what is expected to be the peak of the virus. To catch up on lost time, the department said there was a possibility of extending the academic year into 2021.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is expected provide more details about the plans for the institutions at a press briefing today.

“Online learning will result in an academic disaster and exacerbate the Covid-19 disaster.”

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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