/ 8 September 2020

Covid-19 exposes South Africa’s digital literacy divide

Computer literacy: In rural areas
Whereas some learners were fortunate enough to be able to access online learning platforms right from the start of the lockdown, others were dependent on government and private funders for smartphones, tablets or laptops and in some cases even free data.


When the Covid-19 pandemic reached South Africa many people feared the huge potential loss of life. Now, more than five months later, they are faced with the devastating effect of the pandemic on the livelihoods of millions of people. The national state of disaster has also had a severe effect on the education sector, threatening the future livelihoods of young people.

But the severity is not uniform across the educational spectrum, and this is not only because of a historically created infrastructure divide. The pandemic has opened our eyes to a potentially more devastating digital literacy divide. In recognition of International Literacy Day (September 8), I would like to take a closer look at this issue.

The American Library Association’s digital literacy task force defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills”. In the public eye, school learners and tertiary students are regarded as digitally literate, and even called digital natives, because “they are always on their cell phones”. Using a cell phone for communicating with family and friends is, however, a far cry from finding, evaluating and creating information. 

When the hard lockdown began at the end of March, the education sector had to stop all face-to-face activities and find new ways to continue educating South Africa’s more than 13-million school learners and 1.8-million tertiary students. With only 37% of South African households having consistent access to the internet through cell phones or computers, according to Statistics South Africa, the departments of basic education and higher education and training were faced with the near impossible task of continuing the academic year. When looking at individual provinces, the enormity of the task became even more obvious, with Polity.org.za recently reporting that the North West and Limpopo have the lowest access to internet at home, at 3.6% and 1.6% respectively.  

Under the lockdown regulations, most private schools immediately moved their teaching online, with StatsSA reporting that 83.5% of these learners (about 550 000) could, with minimal disruption, continue learning from home through online platforms. For public schools the number of learners who could continue learning from home, was 67.1%. Many public school learners were (and still are) restricted to radio or television broadcasts, or textbooks and worksheets distributed to them. 

Apart from the 16 percentage points differentiation between public and private schools, the level of learning in public schools under the lockdown stood in stark contrast to that of learners in private schools, where the move to online learning caused less academic disruption. But even for those learners who could move to online learning, 68.4% reported that they had difficulty adapting to the online environment. This emphasises the general lack of digital literacy among learners and educators. If digital literacy skills had been developed and nurtured prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the move to an online learning environment would have been far more effortless. 

Whereas some learners were fortunate enough to be able to access online learning platforms right from the start of the lockdown, others were dependent on government and private funders for smartphones, tablets or laptops and in some cases even free data. Some parents, especially in rural areas, had to spend their hard-earned cash on buying smartphones for their children. Providing the technological tools was a critical step. If a student or learner has never used the internet, or has not been taught the necessary skills to find, evaluate or create information, a technological tool becomes one more obstacle in the learning process. 

A major underlying contributor to limited digital literacy is that of the 11 official languages, only English (and to a lesser extent Afrikaans) academic content is widely available online.  

In South Africa, grades one to three learners mostly receive mother-tongue instruction, but, according to the PIRLS Literacy report of 2016, 78% of grade four children cannot read for meaning in any language. My colleague, Nic Spaull, in his South African Schooling and Inequality presentation, further analysed this data and found that in the richest 10% of schools, 71% of grade four children could read for meaning, while all the other schools came in below 25%. The effect of the national lockdown on primary school learners in poorer and rural schools has therefore been devastating, because these learners are not only digitally illiterate, but also functionally illiterate as a result of their poor basic reading skills.

Defining the issues does not solve them. For many educators, it has become the norm to blame the underperformance of their learners or students on a lack of financial resources.  As learners and students are slowly moving back to physical teaching spaces, there are ways in which educators can develop digital literacy skills, using the minimal access to digital resources they do have at their disposal, for example cell phones. For younger learners there are many free-to-download applications that can be used to improve their reading and numeracy skills. 

In the higher grades, teachers could allow learners to use cell phones to do internet searches in class, while teaching them how to evaluate and question the results to differentiate between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources. Where cell phone or laptop access is limited to the teacher only, one learner can be randomly chosen to do the search and to share the results with the class. Another way of practicing digital literacy skills is by printing two or three internet search results. Learners and students can then be tasked to compare the results, using these results to answer higher order questions. 

As feedback and formative assessment activities in physical and natural sciences, groups of learners and students could make video recordings of practical activities and share it with a class WhatsApp group or even a YouTube channel shared between classes. Imagine a YouTube channel filled with science activities in South Africa’s indigenous languages. 

Where there is access to a computer laboratory, educators can challenge learners and students to create PowerPoint presentations or brochures in response to historical event or geographical phenomena investigations in the social sciences, or analyses of novels in language studies. 

Educators are life-long learners and innovators. One can only hope that, on grasping the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on education, they will strive to ensure that poor digital literacy never again hampers the progress of their learners and students. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.