/ 1 May 2020

There are alternatives to pushing emergency remote learning at universities

Online Learning Enhances Success


On April 20, most public institutions of higher learning began rolling out online teaching and learning in response to the national Covid-19 lockdown. This is despite grave misgivings highlighted by academics, through the appropriate channels, which have been met by cursory acknowledgements, and no substantive debate.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), for example, one week was set aside for orientation to online teaching and learning (OTL) and academics were expected to be fully online by April 27, fuelling the assumption that academics and students are sufficiently prepared and resourced (beyond access to laptops and data) to do meaningful academic work during a historically unparalleled crisis of humanity.

The move to OTL, termed emergency remote teaching (ERT), relied on a university-wide student access survey, which mostly focused on the kinds of devices students have and their access to the internet. It did not interrogate deeper issues surrounding students’ circumstances such as quiet learning space, infrastructure and other essential resources necessary for online learning.

Through this survey, students — and their home circumstances and experiences of deep anxiety and fear, even for those who are well resourced — have been reduced to numbers. Those deemed “vulnerable” by the university are forced to continue the academic year, irrespective of the obstacles they have flagged.

Black students, who come from underserved and impoverished neighbourhoods  — which have also witnessed the most brutal enforcement of lockdown regulations by security services (army and police)  — have to confront the “violences” of poverty. These often include inadequate access to food and electricity, gender-based violence, substance abuse and lack of space in which to study. Uneven access to online technologies is but one aspect of an array of inequalities, whether data is zero-rated, or students are given laptops and data (UCT has offered 20-40GB, for example).

The continuation of an academic project under these unequal conditions, although it might provide a sense of normalcy and perhaps even an anchor for some, for most students it will be another structural imposition. Continuing with online teaching and learning will exclude at worst, or disadvantage at best, our hardworking working-class students, while ensuring continuity for the privileged, safeguarding only their interests.

At UCT, the roll-out of laptops is presented as a sweet deal but it comes with onerous and contemptible hidden terms and conditions. Fee accounts are immediately debited with R4150, with a proviso that this charge could be reversed upon returning the laptop.

Students are fully liable in the case of damage, loss or theft. If the laptop is not returned or replacement payment is not made to the university, the student will be blocked from registering in 2021 and will not be able to access their results. Students, who had no intention to acquire a laptop and who are dependent on UCT computer labs, are bearing the brunt of Covid-19.

As academics and practitioners belonging to various teaching and learning communities within UCT, we are in favour of an uncompromised approach that is responsible, based on reality and is socially just. We have insisted time and again that any stop-gap remote learning approach guarantees inclusion for all our students.

We need to pause, so we can engage with what the current moment means for our students, ourselves, for critical and decolonial pedagogies, the university, the higher education sector at large and the society in which we are embedded.

To give parents and students the impression that critical learning can happen online is misleading, especially when academics have only had a few weeks to prepare for such a transition and are being encouraged to only focus on what is “important”.

The push to continue the academic year at all costs suggests a disingenuous engagement with the findings and recommendations for alternatives of a number of reports offered since 2015. This has resulted in yet another missed opportunity towards collectively dealing with and working through the identified issues, such as curriculum.

The surest way of recreating the past, is by ignoring it.

The effects of this pandemic will affect everyone, even those who have the resources, infrastructure and will to participate in online teaching and learning. Some will fall victim to it, whereas others will have to care for those who become ill. The effects of the pandemic on women and public workers, as has been shown already, will be far greater because the burden of care will fall disproportionately on them. This includes cleaning, administrative, academic and women students.

Mental health struggles already experienced by students are likely to worsen while they are away from facilities that usually help them cope. Academic staff are limited in the nature and amount of support we are able to offer students, as we too, within our families and communities adjust to the dynamics that continue to unfold.

This pandemic has exposed the fault lines and injustices that the majority of people in South Africa live under and have been wading through for years. As these cracks get exposed, we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not widen them through protecting and perpetuating privilege.

Covid-19 has provided a much-needed opportunity for both staff and students to pause, reflect on the situation at hand and engage with each other to consider alternate ways of doing that reflect UCT’s values. We urge the university to make sure that as we flatten the curve, we do not reproduce the inequality curves and thus reinforce long-standing exclusions and injustices. To this end the Black Academic Caucus has proposed five scenarios to the university executive to avoid rushing into emergency online teaching. There are alternatives.