As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities are set to begin online learning in an attempt to complete the academic year. The Department of Higher Education and Training says it asked universities to only start with online learning on 4 May, but some are starting this week.
Universities are rolling out programmes to check that online learning is accessible to all students. This has included engaging with the major telecommunications companies to get university pages zero-rated, so students would not need data to access them. Some students also need laptops. Wits, for example, is therefore loaning 5,000 laptops to disadvantaged students, according to Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib.
But student representative councils (SRCs) and student organisations say universities must ensure that all students have equal access to participate in online learning. Some have threatened a national boycott if this condition is not met.
A third-year Bachelor of Social Science student at Rhodes University, who wished to remain anonymous, told GroundUp he lives in Sterkspruit in the rural Eastern Cape and he has to “walk miles from home” to connect to the internet.
Universities ran online surveys during the lockdown to get an understanding of how many students can access online learning.
Students GroundUp spoke to at Rhodes University worried that their smartphones, the only devices some have to access online teaching, don’t have sufficient storage space for the required apps and they struggle to open big files or watch videos needed for online learning.
Rhodes University SRC released a statement on Friday calling for online learning to be halted until the university has laid out “a proper plan to ensure students have necessary means and resources to participate”.
Vice Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela responded the next day, assuring the student body that “no student will be left behind on account of lack of an approcate device or access to connectivity”.
He agreed to extend online orientation until 30 April in order to give the university time to “identify students who need support”. He also gave the assurance that there would be a moratorium on academic exclusions.
The same approach has been adopted by the University of the Free State and North West University.
The University of Pretoria announced last week that it will delay all online learning until 4 May, citing obstacles in delivering IT equipment to students in need.
The University of Cape Town, the University of Johannesburg, Wits University, the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University are continuing plans to start online learning this week.
Ishmael Mnisi, spokesperson for the Department of Higher Education and Training, said that the department provided guidelines to all tertiary education institutions to start online teaching and learning on 4 May.
He said the department’s commitment to online learning will be guided by principles of “inclusivity and accessibility” to make sure “no student is left behind.”
Mnisi said the department has communicated to all universities that their online learning programs must be equitable. He said that Minister Blade Nzimande will hold a media briefing on Friday to announce plans for the continuation of the academic year.
Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education is due to hold a virtual meeting on Tuesday, to assess the impact of the lockdown on higher education in the country. Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Blade Nzimande is due to present plans to rescue the 2020 academic year.
On Twitter, Habib said that universities are beginning online teaching now, as agreed at Universities South Africa. Responding to criticism from the Deputy Minister of Education, Habib wrote: “There is no violation of a national agreement. We agreed to enable multiple pathways of learning and to ensure that all students are given a fair opportunity to complete the year.” Habib said no tests or assignments would be due before 4 May.
“Students have been given 30GB of data for one month on any of the four networks. This will allow them to participate in online classes and to explore educational resources for online learning,” he said.
On Friday the South African Student Congress (SASCO), along with a number of student body organisations, threatened to boycott online classes unless universities can ensure that all students are able to participate in online learning.
In a statement, SASCO said that there was a large number of “students from remote areas which are poorly serviced by government and are largely not demarcated to receive services such as courier services (for delivery of IT equipment) and network connectivity”.
The student organisation called for a “complete boycott of E-Learning services” until demands are met. These demands included more investment into IT infrastructure, a postponement of online learning for two weeks until universities can ensure accessibility, and a clear commitment to ensure students will not be academically excluded during the current national crisis.
Wits University SRC president Thuto Gabaphethe told GroundUp that the SRC will boycott online learning until the university can guarantee equal access to all students.
“Wits is made of a wide range of communities which includes students from disadvantaged communities that might not be conducive to online learning. This is a result of a lack of electricity in some areas, a lack of network in others, and overcrowding in some households,” said Gabapthethe.
He said that the SRC “asked the university to outline a plan on how those students will be assisted and this has not been done. We are against a rushed commencement of the program until these issues are addressed.”
On Twitter, Habib wrote: “Social justice doesn’t require a reversion to the lowest common denominator. It requires an awareness of inequalities and an active intervention to mitigate its consequences. This is what we have done.”
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