Changing the face of our education system, transforming the modern classroom and traditional ways of teaching and learning to fast-track the country’s readiness for the digital evolution, has been an on-going conversation for many years. Who would have thought a pandemic would ultimately be the ‘kick’ that pushes South Africa’s drive towards digitisation, especially in the education sector? The sudden disruption to normal classroom learning as a result of the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak and the subsequent nation-wide lockdown instituted by the government to curb its spread, meant that schools and higher education institutions had to turn to online platforms to continue with their curricula.
However, what the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced is the digital divide that currently exists in our country, and the lockdown has served to widen that already massive gap. Issues observed during the lockdown to demonstrate the divide range from access to technological resources; capacity of schools in rural, township and urban areas; accountability; data and internet access per capita widening the gap between the haves and have nots. Another area which is often overlooked is the issue of learners with special needs, whose home schooling has placed an enormous burden on parents and caregivers that are, in most cases, ill-equipped to handle the sensitivity and trauma often associated with having to support people with special needs.
Remnants of the apartheid-era urban and rural education divide are still felt today, with a large number of former ‘Model C’ schools having had a head start as far as traditional infrastructure support (scientific and computer labs, timeous and systematic processes for procuring and delivering textbooks and the quality of classrooms and school facilities in general). Learners from middle- and upper-class-income households have managed to seamlessly continue with some learning, as their homes would already have resources such as home computers and wifi connection. This is where the rural-urban divide continues to cut deep by widening the gap of inequality and privilege as far as educational support, where the ‘have nots’ will either fall back on their school work or work ten times harder to make it through the academic year versus ‘the haves’.
In an attempt to close the gap, government has made it its mandate to prioritise rural and historically disadvantaged schools in the rolling out of digital gadgets such as laptops and tablets for teachers and learners as well as the building of ‘Smart Schools’, already converting identified existing schools into Tech Schools. These projects by government were intended to be rolled out in phases, although there were varying degrees of the roll-out among the country’s nine provinces, with Gauteng moving at a faster pace than mostly under-resourced rural provinces such as the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. The precipitous outbreak of Covid-19 outbreak caught government unprepared and, as a result, the already disadvantaged learners are falling behind in their studies and curriculum, with no means to interact with their teachers due to lack of tech gadgets or computers to facilitate learning at home. For those who have smartphones, the high cost of data remains a stumbling block.
Briefing the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Minister Blade Nzimande noted that online education continues to be a key challenge during the lockdown, adding that his Department was prioritising the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the higher education sector to ensure students have access to learning material. To support his Department’s efforts, Minister Nzimande plans to engage with telecoms companies to discuss zero ratings on data and educational materials. This move by the Department will most likely prove beneficial for the vast number of students coming from poorer households, who would otherwise be at risk of lagging far behind the curriculum when academic programme resumes.
For digitisation of education to succeed, and to reap the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all South Africans must play their part. The telecommunications industry and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) have to work together to reduce the cost of access to learning materials. Higher education institutions should devise creative ways of ameliorating the plight of poor students. For instance, the University of Cape Town has shown that this is possible, by making laptops available to poor and disadvantaged students. In addition, the University of the Witwatersrand announced in April that they have entered into a partnership with telecom companies such as MTN, Vodacom and Telkom to ensure that learners are able to access learning materials online at a cheap or discounted rate. Parents, too, must become more involved in the education of their children, and communities must take it up to themselves to protect requisite infrastructure in their localities and report cases of thuggery and theft of digital gadgets such as tablets and laptops stolen from schools. Government should also consider whether theft and destruction of public infrastructure cannot be considered an act of treason and therefore subject to the harshest of punishment in terms of the law. Covid-19 is heralding a new social compact among different role players in education, and this is an opportunity that should not missed. There is no reason why partnerships among these different role players cannot be the norm post-Covid-19 and extended to all spheres of life.