The lockdown has been touted a necessary measure to flatten the curve of COVID infection. While the rate of infection globally is slowing down, the lockdown is shedding light on pre-existing social disparities, whose effects are also being felt in the education sector. I am writing as an educator at the University of Cape Town, teaching students from very diverse backgrounds, and daily taking stock of what the lockdown truly means for those who are less privileged.
I teach in a faculty whose primary mission is transformation through education, and teach ‘students of colour’, who may be from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. Our initiatives are mostly government-funded as the faculty’s role aligns closely with the national goal of promoting equity in a post-Apartheid context.
Teaching during the lockdown has added a new layer of complexity. The University of Cape Town is ranked as the top African university, yet its operations in this time of crisis have not been without challenges. Given the stark social disparities that endure, it has had to come up with creative solutions so as not to leave anyone behind as we embark into online/remote teaching. Its first step was to carry out a survey to identify who were the students who needed devices or internet facilities (https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2020-04-01-important-student-access-survey-conditions-for-receiving-a-loan-laptop). The survey was emailed and texted to a total of about 27,000 students. The results indicated that close to 10% of students would struggle with online learning. As expected, the figure was much higher in our class of 260 students. About 30% of the students indicated that they did not have a stable internet connection.
To respond to the students in need, the university was faced with two main options, either to suspend classes and resume teaching after the crisis, or attend to the students’ technological needs and resume teaching online in the last week of April. The university opted for the latter. Based on survey results, struggling students in South Africa are being given laptops on loan, and provided with the required data. Also, following an agreement with the country’s main mobile providers, our online platform (similar to Moodle), which has been in existence prior to the lockdown and the library website were made zero-rated. In other words, students could navigate these sites at no cost. Zoom licenses were also purchased to enable longer sessions.
On our course, we had been running weekly online sessions even before the pandemic, to consolidate what was covered in class. Relevant materials were already being uploaded on the online platform. These sessions gave us a glimpse of students’ conceptual understanding. At the same time, they made us more aware the financial situation/technological constraints of some students who live in the less resourced townships. We therefore resorted to holding these sessions in the university computer labs.
With the lockdown and the call for remote teaching, it became more evident that we had to cater for the lowest denominator, while still offering quality education. We designed notes and mind maps which were posted on the platform. These could also easily be shared via email or WhatsApp. We also used the platform’s chatroom for live discussions every morning to engage with students around the material. We found that students accessed the notes and did the assigned tasks, however some could not attend the morning discussions for various reasons: distractions at home, chores, time management issues during the lockdown. They now constitute our batch of evening learners. Additionally, we have about 10% of the students still struggling to stay connected. In the interim, some of us have had to create parallel classes using the WhatsApp voice note tool, which has had much traction. The university is currently studying the feasibility of sending notes/flash drives to students in remote areas with connectivity issues.
The whole experience has only confirmed for me that a one-size-fits-all model will not work in the Global South. Some universities overseas have opted for video and interactive software to continue and complete their curriculum. The University of Cape Town has its own MOOCs on the Coursera and Futurelearn platforms, but not all of our students will be able access these under lockdown conditions because the labs and cyber cafes are also closed.
In our context, our success will therefore be measured in terms of how inclusive our offerings can be. Can we reach out to our less privileged students, and our special needs students, and make this education meaningful for them? If we can reach them, we can reach all. This is the challenge that the University of Cape Town has embarked upon, and every day is teaching us to be more compassionate as teachers, and view our situation through the lens of gratitude.