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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

University Bosses Clash With Students Over Online Learning Amid COVID-19 Lockdown

Charles Molele

University students at three top South African universities are up in arms over a sudden decision to resume the 2020 academic year using remote online learning and teaching during the national lockdown period. 

Last week, the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town announced radical plans to restart the academic year this week using remote online learning and teaching methods as of their recovery plans in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

This comes as the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology meets on Tuesday to discuss the impact of the lockdown on the higher education sector.
 
The committee will also receive a briefing from the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande on plans of the department, universities and Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges to rescue the 2020 academic year.

On Monday, students said the Government continued to turn a blind eye to the inequalities which exist between historically white institutions and historically disadvantaged black institutions,

They also reacted angrily to resumption of classes, saying the move flies in the face of pervasive and deep social inequalities, including the lack of access to the internet, high costs of data and access to the fundamental resources necessary for online education.

University of Johannesburg’s Students Representative Council (SRC) said on Sunday that all online activities should be suspended during the duration of the lockdown until the end of April. 

“This action will present the management with the assistance of the interim SRC to distribute resources such as devise, data and other study material to needy students before the commencement of online learning,” said UJ SRC in a statement. 

“Many students are studying in homes that do not favour learning, presenting many challenges on the academic performance of students, which could result in failure and academic exclusion.”

The South African Students Congress has also voiced its opposition to the sudden implementation of e-learning and called for a single coordinated higher education system. 

 “The University of Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria and other historically privileged institutions have been given the green light to continue with their systematic exclusion of students from poor and working class backgrounds,” it said in a statement. 

“These institutions and government are fully aware that a large majority of their students are from remote areas which are poorly serviced by government and largely not demarcated to receive services such as courier services and network connectivity; these are the lived realities of communities which get poor service delivery from government.”

On Sunday, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Buti Manamela described the decision of the three institutions to resume classes this week as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘inconsiderate’. 

“For Wits University and others to insist on resuming academic programmes online tomorrow even when some students will be left behind, and after agreement with all stakeholders to work towards a later date when we are all ready, is irresponsible and inconsiderate,” said Manamela. 

He added: “The principles are clear. No institution should be left behind. No student should be left behind. Students who have no study gadgets or internet connectivity should not be treated as though they are the cause of COVID-19. We [must] ensure that we take all students along.” 

In an interview with Inside Education, Wits vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, dismissed opposition to the resumption of classes on the basis of socio-economic inequalities, saying social justice doesn’t require a reversion to the lowest common denominator. 

“It requires an awareness of inequalities and an active intervention to mitigate its consequences. This is what we have done,” said Habib. 

Habib said SACO, EFF Student Command, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and other political formations opposed to the resumption of classes were spewing empty rhetoric and offered no tangible solutions to the problems faced by institutions of higher learning. 

“I wonder what they get out of it. I have heard protests by SASCO, the EFF Student Command and so on. We are trying to equalize the place. Why is it that the only thing the political parties can do is to stop learning. We are trying to fix things. Is it going to be perfect? Of course there will be mistakes. We learn from mistakes. We will fix it,” said Habib. 

Habib also wrote on Twitter that the Deputy Minister of Higher Education’s comments on the resumption of e-learning were irresponsible and did not accord with the facts and was based on political gossip and hearsay. 

“Be measured, deputy minister, and act in the interest of the nation and not just political factions. This factional behaviour is what has destroyed so many public institutions,” he said. 

Habib said the next two weeks will be used to acclimatize to the online learning process. 

He added that lectures will be recorded on Wits Learning Management System and can be accessed at the student’s convenience. 

He said academics are on standby to assist students as they come online. 

“We have created a mobile bank. We bought 5 000 computers. We are going to loan these computers to students. That’s the first thing. Secondly, we have cut a deal with MTN and Vodacom and they are giving 30 Gigs of data. They will charge the university and not the students. That means they have been given a leg up,” he told Inside Education.  

University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor, Tshilidzi Marwala, said management has a responsibility to ensure the completion of the academic year. 

“We have put in place measures to assist academics and students with both teaching and learning remotely. UJ has already established itself as an institution that has embraced technology. Even prior to the lockdown, Blackboard and alternative modes of teaching and learning had been successfully implemented,” said Marwala. 

“While we are fully cognisant of the fact that students face difficulties with access to technology and data, the university is in discussion with the telecoms industry. UJ is not unique and alone in this dilemma and every effort both from university level to national are engaged in resolving these matters.”

University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sabelo Buhlungu’s office said although the university has expedited the provision of Online teaching and learning during this period, the capacity to implement that fully  has been limited due to a number of factors. 

The university spokesperson Tandi Mapukata told Inside Education that key among these was that a large proportion of Fort Hare students, compared to more advantaged universities, did not have laptops, connectivity and data.  

“Fort Hare is a rural university and the majority of our students come from disadvantaged households.  In addition, poor network signal in some of the villages impedes internet access,” said Mapukata.  

“These barriers to remote teaching and learning have been acknowledged by DHET and its regulatory bodies such as the Council on Higher Education.”

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university has put in place several measures to support students during this period. 

 “The university conducted an urgent student access survey. The survey asks questions about the conditions where students are now living and how those conditions will affect their ability to study. These include access to wifi and the internet; access to a quiet place for dedicated study or research; the hours students expect to be able to study or do research, among others,” said Moholola. 

“Of the 90.4% who had completed the survey by 15 April, 89.5% has access to a laptop/desktop, while 1.3% had no device. UCT has arranged for door-to-door delivery of the laptops to eligible students.” 

 “A further 91.4% had internet access. The university is investigating how it can further support the 8.6% students without internet access, in addition to other measures already put in place, such as an agreement with Cell C and Telkom to zero-rate access to certain UCT websites. The university calls on the remaining two cellphone providers to support this call, which comes not just from UCT but from across the higher education sector. This kind of support is essential to continue teaching and learning online during UCT’s second term.” 

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