Online teaching will widen gap of rich and poor

Image: 123RF/Aleksandr Davydov

Over the past few days, there have been ongoing debates about whether or not higher learning institutions should migrate to online learning and teaching in response to Covid-19. This debate is necessary.

The reality of the situation is that being forced to enter into a national lockdown has had significant consequences across all learning institutions. Everything had to stop abruptly, right in the middle of an academic term.

Students are particularly concerned about what the implications of an extended lockdown period would mean - and justifiably so.

An extension to the 21 days lockdown will have very real consequences not just for higher education, but for education in general. For one thing, if there is no proper alignment between basic and higher education in terms of the progression of students, then we have a problem on our hands. If first year students can't be progressed into second year, that means there is no possible way to accommodate matriculants in higher education. This would have a ripple effect not only on the entire education chain, but on the economy as well. And the economy, battered on all sides by low growth, rising levels of unemployment and now a global pandemic that has haemorrhaged the little production activity that our country was having, is in no position to survive this kind of potential catastrophe.

As a result of these and other considerations, and in the interest of not wanting to waste an academic year, several higher learning institutions have been trying to insist on migrating to online learning and teaching. The University of the Witwaterstand, where I am registered as a master's student in the faculty of science, has been committed to finding ways to ensure teaching and learning continue. We have been subjected to endless e-mails on a daily basis, communicating how the university is finding ways to ensure the academic project continues. On the surface, this appears progressive, but in reality, it is a move that if employed by all learning institutions, would have devastating consequences for students, particularly those from a working class background.

For one thing, not every student has access to the learning equipment required to migrate online. Wits University and others who want to insist on continuing with the academic project do not appreciate the socioeconomic realities confronting our country, at the heart of which is structural inequalities that are laid bare in our spatial and economic constructs. Not all students have laptops or even smartphones that will enable them to learn from home. And even if this barrier was removed, which Wits is trying to do by availing laptops to students in need of them, not all students are equipped with an understanding of how to navigate online learning. Some of these students are first year students from quintile 1 and 2 schools in remote rural areas and poor townships, they had not yet had adequate training in computers. What do we do with these learners?

But beyond the question of access to learning equipment and ability to use it, there is also the reality that not all students live in environments conducive for learning. Thousands live in overcrowded homes and communities, under conditions of economic lack. The reason we have universities where students can live on campus is precisely to ensure that they can have a conducive learning environment, which is crucial to academic success. The absence of this will have disastrous consequences for poor students in particular.

What migrating to online this haphazardly will do is deepen the problematic inequalities that already define the higher education terrain in SA. Middle class and rich students will be able to excel while the poor will be left behind. This will take us 10 steps backwards in our quest to level the playing fields for all students, something which is fundamental if we are to truly transform both our higher education sector and society in general. While we all want to salvage the academic year, while we all recognise the importance of continuing with the academic project, we must appreciate that under these conditions this is not possible or just.

The government and universities must find a solution to this crisis, but one that doesn't leave behind children of the poor. The SA Union of Students has already suggested an alternative - the realignment of our educational calendar to that of the northern hemisphere, which would see us start our academic year in September. It's a solution worth exploring. It's a solution that ensures no student is left behind. Any solution that doesn't do this should not be considered, because it sets parameters for epistemic and socioeconomic injustice which we must never normalise.

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