Overcoming the educational digital divide as SA grapples with a deadly global pandemic
COVID-19 brings into sharp focus the importance of universal broadband in South Africa so barriers to entry to essential services like digital education are swiftly removed. By David Chen, Vice-President, Huawei Southern Africa Region
South African schools and tertiary institutions, like in many countries around the world, will remain closed for a lockdown period that is aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But schools have asked parents and children to ensure that learning continues at home.
In the days after the state president’s first announcement of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus on 15 March 2020, many schools have successfully taken the curricular online. So for many students, it’s back to school, albeit from home. Their teachers have created lesson plans, activities and assignments to complete; to ensure that students do not miss out on crucial learning during lockdown.
The recent announcement of zero-rated educational and informational (reference) Web sites were a crucial move by South Africa’s mobile networks, an indication of how seriously the ICT industries takes their role to impact society where they can in positive ways.
Online education can be a societal equaliser
Digital learning is about engaging the scholar anywhere, and at any time, in meaningful and relevant ways. Online education is, additionally, an important societal equaliser, as all students will be in a position to access the world's best educational content regardless of economic barriers. This is contingent on broadband becoming ubiquitous.
In the throes of the novel coronavirus in China, several traditional schools had to postpone the new semester until mid-February or until the end of March. The Ministry of Education made known its plans to launch a national Internet cloud classroom on 17 February 2020, where a number of teaching materials and courses for students would be made available. While the country entered a lockdown period to curb the spread of the disease, scholars would still be able to continue with their curriculum by connecting to their learning content, classroom and teachers over broadband Internet access.
As South Africa prepares to meet this highly disruptive and destructive virus head on, we must concurrently ensure the foundation is built and strengthened to withstand any future shocks that may come. This requires us to begin today, by removing the barriers that prevent us from delivering this value to the country’s children and to its citizens.
Learning enhanced by technology
Technology-enhanced learning is not only about the innovative use of a digital tool, and methodologies for the delivery of teaching; it is more about how we interact. A child will find that he or she has never been more important than with the traditional contact teaching methods, since the teaching shifts from one-on-all to one-on-one mode.
With the help of digital systems like live virtual classrooms, the teachers themselves must be able to deliver classes, live with some, and with rich media content; and students must be able to interact in real-time with their teacher. A digital education platform must allow for tracking and monitoring of the progress of all pupils, as well as tracking of the progress of all teachers delivering the curriculum using electronic means, and their students.
Moving up the chain of command, class progress, school progress, district progress and provincial progress must all be monitored for administrative reporting and management. Enabling this digital education platform to work in South Africa’s context means that every child in the schooling system, be it private or public, must have access to some essentials.
Broadband access becomes a necessity
For a smoother teaching, interesting learning and efficient monitoring, broadband connection is a primary requirement. Improving the pace at which broadband is developed in the country underpins many, if not all, endeavours to limit the impact of external forces and disruptions to education provision and other public service delivery.
With the lockdown measures, the demand for remote access has just surged. Globally, countries have begun releasing temporary spectrum for operators to meet the increased customer demand for broadband in this period, when countries battle to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
In South Africa, data traffic surged between 35% and 60%, as reported in almost all local networks. Mobile network operators in the country have started drop data costs. Yet, some in the country may not be able to access the rich content that’s been made available, due to issues of broadband access or network capacity.
For broadband to be expanded in the country, for capacity to be built up to allow for large-scale use of online services going beyond education to health, government and commerce applications requires a host of elements to be in place now.
Spectrum, access to sites for small cells, swift site application approvals, simpler processes and reasonably costed wayleaves, affordable devices and data are just some of the required elements that support a robust digital ecosystem for any country.
It is only once operators are able to deploy new network sites more easily and more rapidly, and perhaps more cost-effectively, that South Africans will start to see the benefits of expanded broadband networks, in how their daily lives are impacted. The cost-effectiveness could also be passed on to consumers to make the telecommunications services more affordable, so that online education could be a new norm not only at this special moment, but also when we return to normal life.