Government looks to the skies to boost digital education

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 25 May 2020
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

South Africa’s higher education department is considering the use of space science and Earth observation technologies as it looks for the best ways to implement its multi-modal and remote learning systems.

This as the country is set to move to level three of the COVID-19 lockdown as of 1 June, with more sectors of the economy expected to open and 33% of the student population also returning to campuses.

All other students would be supported through remote multi-modal teaching, learning and assessment until they can return to campus, according to higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

The remote and multi-modal programmes have been met with some contention, as some student education bodies say a significant number of South African students who are based in underprivileged areas are robbed of a fair and equal opportunity to complete their academic year.

The representative bodies highlight that these students have no access to adequate learning devices, network coverage and the connectivity required to enable remote online learning during lockdown.

Nzimande said his department is looking to reach vulnerable students through the use of space technologies.

“The Department of Science and Innovation, in conjunction with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, Sentech and the South African National Space Agency, is currently looking at a long-term solution to support the digital transmission needs of the national education system through the launch of a locally-produced communications satellite.

“The Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, which falls within the Department of Science and Innovation, is also completing the task of establishing a geospatial planning map identifying the location and distribution of learning and co-learning sites in all the districts of South Africa to enable us to support students in the period before full return to campuses.”

He added government is committed to ensure all National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students have access to an appropriate device to support their online learning and ensure no student is left behind.

“Some universities have already issued their students with laptops, some as part of their normal policies, others as a response to COVID-19.

“A lot of work then had to be undertaken to quantify the exact number and location of these students who still need to be issued with devices. That work has now been completed and procurement will commence as soon as the approval of the minister of finance is received.”

Cost to connect

On the issue of Internet access, Nzimande acknowledged the cost of connectivity remains a huge barrier for students who want to use the digital learning mode as part of government’s multi-modal and remote learning.

However, he pointed out that his department, the communications and digital technologies ministry and mobile network operators (MNOs) have worked together to ensure educational content sites of public universities, technical and vocational education (TVET) and CET colleges, including agricultural and nursing colleges, is zero-rated.

“This is a huge step forward and highlighted the effective collaboration between the department and the telecommunications sector. Zero-rating means access to institutional Web sites will be free, although some of the embedded content like YouTube videos will be charged for.”

The department’s next step is to make available educational data bundles for all NSFAS students in universities and TVET colleges, to access additional content that is not covered through the zero-rating, the minister revealed.

“I am pleased to announce we have successfully negotiated with all mobile network operators very favourable rates for our NSFAS students, including the Funza Lushaka students who will receive 10GB daytime and 20GB night-time data for three months, starting from 1 June till end of August, as subsidised by government.

“In weeks to come, we will give detailed information on how to access these offers.”

Unfortunately, government is currently not in a position to subsidise those students that fall within the missing middle category and students in private institutions who also need support in accessing data for their online learning, he said.

“We, however, appeal to MNOs to work with institutions to also offer affordable packages to such students. I am, however, working towards establishment of an affordable higher education loan scheme involving the private sector.

“I want to repeat what I said in my previous statement that NSFAS and the Funza Lushaka students must ensure they register their cellphone numbers with their respective institutions. We advise that during this period, they must also not change their SIM cards so as to enable network operators, through their institutions, to load data to their devices.

“I just want to emphasise that this data that needy students will receive must be used for dedicated online educational platforms for teaching and learning, as approved by institutions.”