In Part 2 of this series, the importance of access to infrastructure, devices and the cost of connectivity were highlighted as some of the elements required to use technology for ongoing learning during the COVID-19 lockdown.
While these are important elements in the use of technology for learning, much more is required for effective learning.
This article will look at other aspects that are required to enable school learners and students to derive the best possible benefit from technology. A snapshot is provided of some of the approaches followed by schools, teachers, parents and learners during the lockdown period.
Change needs to be accelerated exponentially
A key, if not the key characteristic of the COVID-19 epidemic is the aggressive and engulfing pace at which it is swamping the world. With school and university lockdowns in 166 countries catapulting learners and students into the unknown within the space of weeks, regular plans for upscaling technological access now seems powerlessly pale.
COVID-19 requires rocket-like rapid responses which makes the ambitious agenda of the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa, prepared under the leadership of the African Union Commission (AUC), appear pedestrian.
This strategy provided what was regarded as a “bold vision” before COVID-19 struck: “to ensure that every African individual, business, and government is digitally enabled by 2030. The goal is to drive the digital transformation of Africa and ensure its full participation in the global digital economy.” (Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband for All, 2019).
If only, this was in place in 2020 already.
It is probable that this envisaged growth trajectory has now been surpassed by the need to cope and recover from COVID-19.
Collaborative multi-dimensional effort required
While education is not mentioned explicitly in the section above, it is incorporated because education is part of government. Digital enablement of all sectors, including government, and education as part of government, requires a multi-faceted, collaborative effort, including;
- Policy and regulatory frameworks,
- Digital skills and local content development,
- Device availability,
- Supporting infrastructure and electricity, and
- Universal, affordable and good quality connectivity.
Bearing in mind the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted education in the world, and specifically in the developing world, the UN (2020: 19) has called upon the international community “to support governments not only in providing distance learning solutions that use multimedia approaches to ensure learning continuity, but also in supporting teachers, parents and caregivers in adapting to homeschooling modalities.”
The UN further mentions the importance of inclusion and equity as guiding principles “to avoid a further deepening of inequalities in access to education, with special measures taken to jointly meet the health, nutrition and learning needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth, as well as policies to address connectivity and content challenges.” (UN, 2020:19).
While this poses a large challenge to find innovative and equitable solutions fast, it also provides an opportunity to leapfrog development in this important area.
Education inequality in South Africa
The unequal digitisation of the world has been highlighted in Part 2 of this series. It has been pointed out that South Africa is in a better position than the African continent as a whole, in the area of digitisation.
However, the Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa report (2019) mentions that in addition to the extensive variance of the coverage and quality of mobile networks used for the internet between countries, it should be noted that significant gaps exist within countries, specifically between urban and rural areas. The rural/urban divide as an impediment for online and distance learning has been researched by various scholars.
For example, in the context of tertiary distance learning, Lembani et al. (2020) found that “students in urban areas have a significantly different educational experience to students with poor ICT access in urban, peri-urban and rural areas”.
In addition, it should be taken into account that South Africa remains a highly unequal society, and that South Africa’s relatively low rating on the Human Development Index (HDI) is also informed by continued inequality in education.
Against this background, and taking into account the multiple aspects that need to be in place to benefit from technology, DWC has done a rapid environmental scan of resources put in place during the lockdown, and has spoken to a random range of stakeholders regarding the arrangements that were made by the educational institutions their children attend.
Education limping ahead under COVID-19 lockdown
While the bulk of the South African government’s efforts are understandably focused on the medical response, enforcing the lockdown and providing some relief for the inevitable hardship that is following the lockdown, some resources have been put in place by education departments.
From a collection of information discussions with a random range of ordinary people, it seems that early responses in the education environment vary considerably. It is interesting that these responses seem to be informed by a number of interrelated factors.
These factors include the assessment of the risk posed by COVID-19, institutional capacity, technological literacy of key role players, the extent to which learners or students have access to technological resources, and the resourcefulness of individual educators.
- A tertiary institution who offers qualifications through post-graduate contact sessions, have acted swiftly and have already adapted content and schedules to respond to a scenario where face-to-face classes may only resume during the 4th quarter of the year. In preparation for this, students were polled regarding their internet access, the type of devices they work on, and where they have access to technology and connectivity.
- An urban Model C School has also polled their learners and parents on technology and internet access, and are sending daily lessons to learners, on their own choice of device.
- Some primary schools are providing links to educational material without much further guidance. Other primary schools are not providing any learning materials and have also kept learners’ books at the school, due to fears that books will be lost or vandalised if sent home with children during the lockdown period.
- A school for high-functioning learners with special needs sends daily learning materials to learners.
- Some teachers are providing Zoom lessons to their learners.
- Some teachers are providing summaries of work to learners and hope to catch up with the curriculum when schooling resumes.
- Other teachers say their learners come from poor communities and do not have access to technology, which renders them unable to communicate with learners, and provide assistance during the lockdown.
Various other resources are being used in addition to the links provided by the education department. These include online resources which are either free or require subscription; parent groups; Facebook groups, and WhatsApp. In addition, radio stations and television channels are offering content.
Focusing and streamlining responses
Our rapid snapshot has indicated that most are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances, which caught everyone total off guard. While these responses will help to different degrees to keep learning going, it is interesting that most of them seem to be based on the assumption that learning will continue like normal after the end of the lockdown period in mid-April.
The problem with this assumption is that no-one knows if it will hold. The situation is simply too fluid and unpredictable to assume that classroom activities will resume as normal within the next two weeks.
It is therefore imperative that the education response to COVID-19 be focused and streamlined as soon as possible. Technology will save the day for those with access and resources, but disadvantaged communities may be affected disproportionately. It is for these learners that the digital divide may become a digital chasm in 2020.
The important role of education ministers
The Centre for Global Development recently published an open letter to “an education minister” (Mundy, 2020), where it is stated that education ministers worldwide will now have to make sense of the “COVID-19 mess” following worldwide school closures. Emphasising that limited information is available about the likely path of the pandemic, it is acknowledged that “ministers, educators, communities, families, and learners will all have to make decisions in a context of ‘radical uncertainty’ “.
Against this background Mundy offers six suggestions that should form the backbone of a plan for education (see Text box below).
Ultimately things will change for the better
The positive side of a crisis like this is that it may create increased interest technology and motivation to explore new possibilities. “Forced usage during this time will help people overcome barriers to adoption of digital services… Higher adoption rates during this time will lead to a larger base of users, many of whom will continue to use the innovations beyond the current situation.” (Ipsos, 2020: 5).
Hopefully the COVID-19 crisis will leapfrog education in South Africa to innovative use of technology, and faster digitisation of the sector.
By Fia van Rensburg
 Lembani, R., Gunter, A., Breines, M., and Dalu, M. 2020. The same course, different access: the digital divide between urban and rural distance education students in South Africa, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 44:1, 70-84, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2019.1694876. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03098265.2019.1694876
 The HDI considers the following dimensions: inequality in the expectancy at birth; inequality in education; and inequality in income.