Failing to flatten the Inequality Curve

South African Lecturer Asanda-Jonas Benya writes about the challenges of Online Education under COVID-19.

Student lernt von zu Hause aus am Laptop

Image: of Will Boase Ugandan student informing herself about distance learning.

On 23rd of March South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster and introduced a nation-wide lockdown in response to the Corona virus outbreak. At our university classes were suspended, students had to vacate residences and staff were advised to work from home and to minimise, cancel or postpone all non-essential gatherings. With the country on lockdown, online teaching and learning was hyped as the answer to the pandemic. The biggest challenge, however, was that most students in South Africa have no access to personal computers. At best these are shared with other family members, or students use their mobile devices and when on campus they use computer labs.

To add to the difficulty of access to devices were challenges of unreliable internet services, expensive mobile data and irregular electricity supply. These are all very common in working-class communities, with some being without electricity for days or even weeks. The shift to online meant that students would have to do complex assignments under these conditions and on their mobile-phones. Students also reminded us that they come from and live in crowded homes, where there is no space for social distancing, let alone concentrated reading and thinking. Women students, especially, also noted that they have to care for younger siblings, elderly grandparents and relatives with co-morbidities. This was also in the context of massive retrenchments due to the lockdown, income losses, rising food scarcity and gender-based violence. Since some homes were not viable spaces nor equipped for learning, many students asked to be allowed back to campus, where security, food, electricity, internet and learning infrastructure is provided.

It was not only students who anticipated and experienced struggles, staff members too. Lecturers were not properly equipped to go digital. Most of us were trained in less than a week to migrate to online platforms, hence many were simply depositing material online and not teaching. Some institutions, despite going online, were struggling. Some did not even have functioning photocopying machines, let alone infrastructure to roll out, host and monitor online learning. As such, very little real learning has been happening. It seems to me, we have simply been completing tasks in order to tick boxes and allay anxieties about “losing the year”.

What our institutions failed to do in their haste to roll out online was to seriously engage other alternatives proposed by different stakeholders. For example, the University of Cape Town’s Black Academic Caucus drew 5 scenarios of how to continue learning without being bogged down or restricted by an academic year. The proposals took into consideration national realities and focused on social and ethical learning that would have everyone onboard, not only the privileged. The scenarios included re-shuffling the academic year, rethinking the curriculum, assessments, weighting the 12 months calendar we usually work with, and proposed two-year plans that would facilitate learning and degree completion. Other scenarios included shortening semesters to when students can safely return to campus. Another group of academics from several institutions across the nation proposed what they called “social pedagogy” which recognises that different and valuable learning can happen in communities and emphasise the value of this learning and the need for it to be incorporated into our university curriculums.

Instead of engaging these scenarios and proposals, our institutions and the national Department of Higher Education chose the easy way out, one with many casualties. They proceeded with online emergency remote learning, Students were loaned laptops – albeit with prohibitive stringent terms and conditions – and given limited data to access some learning site and some network providers with zero-rated access to certain university learning platforms. While these went some way in addressing access challenges, they in no way ensured inclusive and equitable learning. For our students, flattening the covid-19 curve means navigating an aggressively intensifying socio-economic inequality curve in higher education.

As this teaching term is drawing to a close, with some higher education institutions celebrating their roll-out of online learning, critical questions need to be asked about whether critical learning can happen under remote teaching. It seems not.

Asanda-Jonas Benya is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at the University of Cape Town, South Africa


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