The South African education sector, like other countries in the world, is faced with challenges due to the emergence of COVID-19. One of the ways of controlling the spread of this virus is through keeping a social distance that has been modelled to be effective by Milne and Xie. Social distancing would have not been possible if educational institutions continued to have contact instruction. Therefore, the initial responses to this pandemic included shutting schools and universities as a means of adhering to the social distancing call. The closure of colleges and universities does not necessarily mean stopping the process of teaching and learning. Learning was set to continue. Education institutions on the entire continent are progressively developing institutional task forces to mitigate the pandemic effects. In the South African context, universities are forced to think of a contingency plan to ensure the continuation of teaching and learning and saving the academic year.
Institutions have now been forced to move towards online education through governmental, domestic, continental, and international programs. This is not new in times of pandemics like this: similar adoption of online learning to adhere to social distancing was seen during the influenza period of 2009-2010. What seems to be an issue is the rapid move to online learning which poses challenges in terms of readiness, leading to increased efforts, broader collaboration, and sharing of knowledge and expertise across the continent. For these reasons, this blog post questions the readiness of the education institutions, drawing from a wide range of factors and the socio-economic status of the South African education students. Using my past experiences and the existing literature on online learning, I bring forth what I see as the existing affordances and constraints of the current rapid shift to online during the COVID-19 pandemic in the South African higher education context.
Conceptualising online learning
Online learning is defined by students’ access to the learning materials from the learning management systems (LMS), engaging in online discussions, and having virtual classes. This means both the students and the lecturer need to have access to devices and the internet. Furthermore, it requires some level of competency of knowing how to use certain tools in the LMS to enhance students’ learning experience. Literature is replete with studies that looked at the experiences of students and instructors when learning and teaching online respectively. Although lecturers can be flexible and utilise a wide range of applications for online learning, the use of an institution’s LMS would remain the main tool since these have now been made zero-rated data to allow access for all students.
The challenges of online learning
One issue that South Africa is faced with is this rapid move to online learning while it is known in the literature that online learning requires planning and cognitive, social, and economic readiness. Nonetheless, the rate of adoption of technology in education has always been fairly slow if not increasing. A recent survey conducted by UNESCO (2020) in Sub-Saharan African countries, also reveals that 216 million (89%) of leaners do not have a household computer, further 199 million (82%) do not have household internet, and lastly, 26 million learners (11%) are not covered by mobile networks in Africa.
Some possible recommendations
To achieve productivity in this digital learning industry, significant cooperation and rapid support from local and national service providers, education institutions, NGOs, the private sector and ICT service providers needs a low- or low-cost rally behind these instruments and platforms.
Moreover, tactically and methodically, the harsh reality of the digital divide in South Africa must be controlled; it must be a national priority in these times of crisis, moving millions of downgraded learners. Additionally, to ensure that the digital channels are properly used, the institutions must establish a detailed strategy and a rigorous monitoring scheme. This duty can not only be left to specific actors' ability.
Finally, it is important for the education institutions to begin to consider and evaluate the impacts of the COVID-19 because it would otherwise be too costly and too late to rebound. The evaluation approach for this must be all-inclusive and involve all stakeholders, including the civil society and private sector.
The author(s) is solely responsible for the content of this article, including all errors or omissions; acknowledgements do not imply endorsement of the content. The author is grateful to Climant Khosa for guidance in the preparation and finalisation of this article.
About the author
Lesedi Senamele Matlala is a Monitoring and Evaluation Researcher at JET Education Services. His main research and consulting areas are: Evaluations of educational Programmes, Public Policy Surveys; and Development Programme Monitoring and Evaluations (M&E). He is also a Doctorate student at the University of Johannesburg.
The views expressed in published blog posts, as well as any errors or omissions, are the sole responsibility of the author/s and do not represent the views of the Africa Evidence Network, its secretariat, advisory or reference groups, or its funders; nor does it imply endorsement by the afore-mentioned parties.