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Student body, lecturers oppose e-learning approach, demand halt

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The South African Union of Students (SAUS) and the Post School Education Alliance, a movement of university lecturers, are calling on the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology (DHEST) to halt e-learning programmes across SA’s higher learning institutions, until the digital divide that exists among students has been addressed.

The representative bodies for SA’s university students and lecturers are concerned that 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, with no access to adequate learning devices, network coverage and the connectivity required to enable a conducive remote online learning environment during the national lockdown.

Some of SA’s tertiary institutions resumed virtual classes between 20 April and 4 May for the second quarter, after closing early on 18 March, in line with government’s plans to prevent further spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in SA.

As a result of the early closure, examinations that were set for March and April were postponed in some institutions, until further notice.

While the country has seen a surge in online learning since it was placed under lockdown, education bodies are calling into question SA’s readiness to adopt remote e-learning programmes for schools and higher learning institutions.

In a media statement, SAUS says it is “strongly opposing a two tier education system” – where there are well-equipped universities to roll out remote learning on one hand, while there are others which are completely unprepared to do the same. In addition, the union is calling for a new and well-planned approach to the curriculum’s methodologies and pedagogies of teaching which require a technique more suitable for online learning.

“We believe that indeed the 2020 academic year must be salvaged; however, we cannot be blind to the existing socio-economic challenges in the country,” says Thabo Shingange,national spokesperson for SAUS.

“These include students not having the devices to access the Internet, lack of network connectivity, in particular rural communities, and overcrowded family households, thereby creating an environment that is not conducive for remote learning.”

Switching to online education overnight will render a lot of students compromised, and therefore SAUS strongly opposes any situation where some students are left behind, says Shingange.

SAUS, which is represented by the Student Representative Council members of all SA’s universities, has outlined new methodologies and pedagogies that should be taken by the DHET to enable online learning to be a reality for all students, “even if it means the academic year will spill over into 2021”.

‘Academic disaster’

SA has 26 public higher learning institutions which have a combined number of more than a million students. In addition, there are around 50 technical vocational education training colleges which have a registered number of 700 000 students, while more than 100 000 students can be found at various private institutions.

According to the DHEST, the earliest possible date for a return to campus involving all students, subject to the lockdown levels, has been scheduled for 1 July, with the year ending on 31 January 2021. A return on 1 August would mean an end to the academic year on 29 February 2021.

Meanwhile, the Post School Education Alliance, a campaign represented by lecturers from more than 20 local universities, is proposing a “social pedagogy approach” for structuring the academic year in three phases:

  • Phase one: Dialogue with students, teachers and communities to appropriately map the context and develop pedagogic strategies for teaching.
  • Phase two:The rollout of a supportive, structured but flexible learning process.
  • Phase three: Return to campus-based teaching only when deemed safe.

“In spaces where e-learning has begun, we call for a pause and the space and time to consider how the existing plans can be shifted to a social pedagogy plan,” according to a statement.

“Contextual analysis shows the current unilateral implementation of online teaching and learning by education institutions will result in an academic disaster and will exacerbate the COVID-19 humanitarian disaster. Neither teaching staff nor students possess the means to make this shift right now and it’s becoming clear that having exams a month later after implementing online learning is calling for failure, as meaningful learning is impossible for the vast majority of students.”

Although some universities have begun to either sell or loan laptops to students, the movement is of the view that e-learning is about much more than mere technological devices, as face-to-face learning is very different to online learning and requires students to manage vast volumes of course materials online.

A spokesperson for the Post School Education Alliance told ITWeb that lecturers are also plagued with numerous e-learning difficulties.

“Lecturers are not supported with tools to help them work online – preparation to teach a class online is different from face-to-face teaching and requires different strategies and methods.

“The rush to online learning has meant that in many cases the materials that are going online are inadequately developed and often inappropriately shaped to be delivered through minimal or absent mechanisms,” notes the spokesperson.

Responding to ITWeb’s questions, the University of Pretoria, University of Johannesburg and University of Cape Town said they are mindful of the challenges posed by e-learning and have made efforts to distribute thousands of learning devices, resources and data to students who do not have access to them.

In addition, the universities say the respective faculties and university departments are actively following up on students not participating in e-learning.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa, which represents all 26 universities, says it must be understood that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented one that has thrust universities into engaging in emergency online teaching.

“Together with the DHEST, we are addressing all the challenges in a systematic way and each has potential solutions. Having said that, the universities have agreed they will ensure no student is left behind due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning there will be a reconstitution of the academic year to ensure every student has a fair chance of completing the year,” explains Bawa.

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