/ 8 April 2022

Digital learning is good – but not for all students

Hardware and the internet are not solutions on their own
The hybrid of remote and contact learning are complementary solutions that should be used together for optimal outcomes. (Oupa Nkosi)

The world is changing at a rapid pace, hurtling developed society into a more digitised future. Some of the most prominent digital innovations display the magic that happens when modern digital platforms can solve age-old human problems by leveraging the speed and power of tech. Think of Uber as a platform for taxi services, the Kindle as a digital library and the iPhone as a mobile music collection. These innovations did not invent the human needs that they solved. Rather, they all leveraged technology to deliver a far superior solution to what had previously been available. As technology marches on and changes the way we interact with the world, many fundamental human truths will stay the same.

We shouldn’t be in a rush to obliterate centuries of understanding about how humans operate and interact. We should keep in mind that tech is only as valuable as the convenience it delivers to the user. Put another way, when it does not meet a user’s needs, it can be a nuisance, at best, and a dangerous intervention, at worst. 

Many human experiences have been significantly augmented by digital technology. But there are some things that technology, in its present incarnation, cannot replace. An example we are seeing in the education-technology space is the value of hands-on, collaborative and face-to-face interactions with like-minded peers. There are benefits to remote work but they do not supplant the virtues of live interactions. The real question is how do we know which is the right tool for which job?

With South Africa’s extreme inequality that condemns many of its citizens to precarious housing, unreliable electricity supply, prohibitively high costs of data and major learning gaps in the primary and secondary education systems, we need to take a pragmatic approach that begins at the station of our present constraints and gradually moves us to a utopian world of universal adoption of remote learning.

The 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns forced almost every South African business, organisation and institution to adapt their operations to fit the online, remote working space. Good has come out of this. For many businesses, it fostered much-needed innovation and gave them an additional competitive edge as they tapped into a global workforce. Education institutions have experienced the benefits of remote work. This point of view is quite rationally informed by the opportunity that an e-learning environment delivers by extending academic institutions’ reach while simultaneously reducing training costs. Although this is true in principle, in practice many students are not equipped to keep up with remote learning because of their socioeconomic position. 

The global shift to remote work has presented opportunities to reach more young people. It has created more job opportunities as organisations around the world have become less concerned with a geographic location in their hiring policies. But for those young people who most need a physical learning environment, particularly early in their learning journey, is not just a nice to have, it is critical to their retention and success.

Students who come from low-income households — those with a household income of less than R350 000 a year — in underserved areas struggle to get the best out of remote learning.

When the tech academy WeThinkCode switched to remote learning it recorded a 22 percentage point drop in performance overall between January and April 2020, during the government-mandated lockdown. Of those students whose performance declined, those from low-income households were disproportionately affected by the transition to remote learning. Despite efforts to give students laptops and data to make the transition easier, the performance disparities were drastic.

A number of factors of course contributed to the drop in performance. First, the quality of infrastructure sets the stage for devices and the internet to operate optimally. A campus levels the playing field by providing equal access to good quality infrastructure. Although students had laptops and data, reliable electricity and data supply could not be guaranteed.

Second, a conducive learning space is required to focus on grasping new concepts. Not everyone has spaces in their homes that have a desk or table and chair. The campus environment plays a critical role in providing students with the space needed to not only focus on work but connect with a group of people with shared interests that are commuted to knowledge sharing. In exit interviews,  students consistently name the people factor as the highlight of the student experience because peers get to leverage one another’s strengths and knowledge. The spontaneity that makes it easy to approach and talk to peers in the same room and gather around a whiteboard is significantly compromised in remote learning environments.

When it was both safe and legal to do so, WeThinkCode started supporting the students that were underperforming by reopening campus and saw their academic performance begin to turn around. 

Remote learning is a reminder of the importance of campus environments for students from underserved areas. The pandemic held a magnifying glass over the cracks and exposed the effect of structural inequalities on inclusive digital transformation. Where technology is usually credited for its ability to drive inclusion, in the real world — when there is no alternative and everyone is forced to play in the same virtual playground despite their operating conditions — the gap between the proverbial “haves and have nots” is stark and often tends to widen.

But it helps to keep a measured approach, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a practical option either. The pandemic experience enabled the exploration of avenues offering remote learning to those who do have the basic tools to benefit positively and extend an institution’s reach. But two things can often be true at the same time. And so it is that the physical campuses have an important role to play in getting youth from low-income backgrounds ready for remote learning and, subsequently, for remote work. A mix of remote and contact learning can be used together for optimal outcomes.

Technology provides an opportunity to level the playing field but education institutions first need to meet people where they are now. They need to bridge the gap by understanding students’ needs and how, where and when technology can play a role in meeting those needs and when it can’t.

There is an opportunity to close the gap but we cannot just wish ourselves into a future utopian state. There is nothing wrong with desiring this — we should — but it often requires hard and honest leg work to responsibly acquire them. There are no shortcuts.

Are we falling into that one-dimensional thought process? The one where we mistake complementary tools for replacements? Are decision-makers, perhaps sitting among the top 10% of earners, making sweeping statements and predictions about a remote future for the 90%? And are we possibly doing this in the country with the highest measured income inequality in the world? If this is the case, we must be honest enough to adjust our perspectives to align with the stark reality of the majority whom we risk leaving behind.