Johannesburg – As students across the country prepare to kick-start the academic year, classroom dynamics have shifted, theoretical and practical course work has been affected and learning environments have been substituted by digital platforms.
Leana de Beer, the chief executive officer of student crowdfunding platform Feenix, says universities in South Africa have quickly adapted to online and distance-based operating models to ensure continued learning during the lockdown.
While this is good for ensuring greater access to education in the long term, De Beer says that in order for a hybrid or digital approach to learning to work, it is important that resources are made accessible to support the needs of everyone, including those with disabilities, underprivileged students, faculty and other stakeholders.
“While the advances in online learning have been phenomenal, to truly create a democratised education system it needs to be accessible to everyone in the country. This was a massive challenge over t he last year, where we saw thousands of students struggling to continue [with] their studies as a result of a lack of resources, computers and data,” she points out.
Dean Kleinbooi, a fifth-year medical student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says the full impact of the lockdown really hit him when he was not able to access the university’s resources or his practicals during the lockdown.
“I didn’t own a computer, so this made it incredibly difficult for me to continue [with] my studies.”
Master of science in agriculture student Zinhle Mkhonto acknowledged that being in a classroom environment or a laboratory is quite different from online learning.
“You take for granted the value of in-person interactions. The shift to online required a lot more concentration and collaboration. It also required me to improve my digital skills to ensure uninterrupted online learning. I have thankfully become a lot more tech savvy and have gained several digital skills that I would never have had the opportunity to learn before.”
According to StatsSA, South Africa has more than 58-million people, but only 31-million have access to the internet.
Cellphones are the most popular and basic form of access to the internet that most South Africans have. While South Africa has the largest number of active connections, less than 3% of all households have fibre to the home connections and only 10% have home internet access.
This lack of access has contributed to students who were not able to learn from home, creating a major gap in their academics. Keith Michael, the CEO of Lebone Litho Printers, says with the right support and training, digital teaching and learning can become ubiquitous even in resource-strapped environments.
“Poorer schools should not be disadvantaged because of connectivity and lack of funding in the information and communications technology space,” Michael says.
“The government should focus on policies that will integrate traditional and digital learning, which has proven to not only be a trend that is being adopted worldwide but an effective way to ensure uninterrupted learning.”
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