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Sunday, December 5, 2021

OPINION: Joburg Entrepreneur Keith Michael Offers Three Strategies Towards Bridging The Online Learning Gap In South Africa

KEITH MICHAEL|

COVID-19 has presented new challenges and demands on the education system. It has shown that technology is no longer a luxury but an essential component of the education process. 

It has also exposed the historical inequalities in which many disadvantaged families do not have access to the internet at any given moment.

According to StatsSA, South Africa has more than 58 million people, but only 31 million have access to the internet. Mobile phones are the most popular and basic form of access to the internet that most South Africans have. While South Africa has the largest number of active connections, less than 3% of all households have (FTTH) Fibre to the Home connections and only 10% have home Internet access. 

This lack of access has certainly contributed to learners who were not able to learn from home, creating a major gap in their academics.  The challenge South Africa has remains bridging the digital divide that deprives people access to the digital world, which comes with much possibility.

E-Learning provides access – which many children, under “normal” circumstances would not be afforded. Rural areas are highly affected as they continue to lag in internet quality. 

In working towards tackling this issue, there are approaches that government and the private sector can adopt to ensure access for learners across the country.

First Strategy: Creating policies to complement the existing system of education

At least 9 000 schools in South Africa do not have access to the internet and more than 11 000 schools do not have internet labs. According to the department of education, an estimated amount of R16 billion is required to provide computer labs with connectivity.

With the right support and training, digital teaching and learning can become ubiquitous even in resource-strapped environments. Poorer schools should not be disadvantaged because of connectivity and lack of funding in the Information and communications technology (ICT) space.

Government should focus on policies that will integrate traditional and digital learning which has proven to not only be a trend that is being adopted all over the world but an effective way to ensure uninterrupted learning during the pandemic.

A few countries in the world have started to implement the strategy of creating platforms for students to access education while at home. Countries such as Afghanistan, China, Brazil, Argentina, and many others are finding ways to supplement learning for students without access to technology or connectivity. 

These countries have adopted effective digital programmes and are finding ways to deliver digital educational materials and learning resources to the homes of learners. 

Some countries also rely heavily on educational television as a learning resource to ensure that school closure does not exacerbate inequity in access to these learning resources. 

Second Strategy: The intentional and proactive raising of funds

The department of education in South Africa still has a long way in creating access for all learners. It has previously attempted to bridge the digital divide gap by providing learners with tablets, however many challenges arose including lack of funding in the ICT space and the lack of security of the tablets and devices amongst other things. 

Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi previously expressed commitment to providing every child in the region access to education via a tablet or computer – which proves to be a complex task. He also added that the plan was not just to allow children access to tablets in schools, but that pupils would be able to take their tablets home to continue with learning.

The department should focus extensively on working towards solving issues such as lack of funding and theft of tablets in schools. For this financial year, the government put aside over R30 billion to build new schools and maintain schooling infrastructure to improve the education system. Additionally, it had planned to allocate R23 billion towards the national school nutrition programme grant, in which 9 million learners in over 20 000 schools would receive meals daily. 

As many disadvantaged learners remain home, it is a great opportunity to reallocate the funds. Some of the funds should still go towards the nutrition of the learners, through giving them food parcels however a small portion can be invested in strategies towards online learning access.

Many learners in disadvantaged communities understand the importance of education and as such would opt for a chance to be able to continue with their studies uninterrupted. By modifying the education sector, we can open the window of opportunities to those students who would otherwise be affected the most by this shift.

Third Strategy: Creating an integrated Public-Private Partnership approach aided by the telecom sector

There is saying, it takes a village to raise a child. South African children cannot be starved and deprived of getting access to online learning when we have a healthy Telecoms Sector. 

Our government should seek the buy in of parents and private companies to invest heavily in the online learning space.

It will take enormous collaboration and energy from all sectors of society to engage government and the private sector to change the future of our learners with mentorship programmes- sponsorships- job shadowing and guidance on skill shortage starting with Grade R to Matric.

It is great to see that there are companies involved in creating e-learning applications to help the students and these companies are also advocating the free use of their products to aid students in times of distress.

Ed-tech solutions providers, school management services, education boards, ICT companies and education entrepreneurs can pull together and work to solve the issue of access. Identifying gaps and filling them is how every company with resources should conduct itself.

At Lebone one of the main priorities for each year is to find schools that are in need and look at ways to solve their problems. In the past year, Lebone invested more R100 000 towards assisting schools in disadvantaged areas to continue to assist learners by providing stationery and other requirements.

The major Telecom service providers should also be involved through giving free access to internet connectivity service for online education, especially in remote and disadvantaged areas. They can also upgrade the bandwidth of major online education service platforms. Teachers also require guidance on e-learning teaching methodologies and there should be an effort to strengthen online security. 

To reinforce the foundational imperative of online learning and create an effective outcome, excellent retired teachers must be part of the strategy. By uniting towards the same goal, funds can be available to ensure that our learners enjoy learning effectively and can focus solely on gaining the skill sets needed to grow and compete in the South African job market.

  • Keith Michael is CEO of Lebone Litho Printers.

(SOURCE: INSIDE EDUCATION)

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