COVID-19 and Online Teaching and Learning: A Double Dilemma for Rural Students
- By Dr Phumlani Myende and Ms Nokukhanya Ndlovu
The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping every aspect of our lives. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are among the entities that have been hit hard by the rapid changes that we are now confronted with. The first wave of responses saw HEIs evacuating students from residences, which, if we now reflect, was a critical decision in contributing to “flattening the curve”. The current agenda on the table is how HEIs continue to facilitate teaching and learning. A couple have already shared their plans to move teaching and learning onto virtual or online platforms and have called on academics to familiarise themselves with and transition to these virtual modes of teaching.
HEIs have been toying with online teaching and learning for years, but for many, this remained at the level of rhetoric. However, a few public institutions, among them UKZN and the University of Cape Town (UCT), have declared their intention to move their teaching and learning onto virtual platforms. For example, UCT has communicated to its students that they understand that this is an enormous undertaking and as such, they have put various measures in place to provide additional support. These include student orientation, increased support in the form of tutors and other academic conveners and reduced workloads, amongst others. UKZN has started training its staff to utilise platforms like Zoom for teaching and learning purposes and deliberations are underway on how students will be introduced to and supported to utilise virtual modes of learning. While this is inevitable, and will be the major driving force for generational change, from a human rights perspective, switching to online platforms could negatively impact access for some students, particularly those located in poor, rural environments.
Transitioning to online platforms will not only mean reskilling for both lecturers and students, it also has implications for access. If we operate from the premise that access to education is a basic human right, it must follow that in transitioning to online platforms, access must be ensured. For many rural and poor students, access to education in this new dispensation means access to infrastructure and resources, including electricity and the internet. We write this piece in a space of privilege. We have internet access, electricity to charge our devices and provide lighting, a desk and a chair, and a quiet space where we can listen to our thoughts and engage with them. These privileges are not enjoyed by the majority of students living in rural communities. This is not to suggest that students in these communities are not capable and resilient enough to adapt to virtual ways of learning. What we do believe, and what research has proven, is that the environment in which they find themselves presents multiple social injustices. The challenges confronting rural students are deep and structural.
That being said, we must not be despondent. Now more than ever we need to think out of the box and find creative and sustainable ways to ensure that we do not further alienate those who are already vulnerable to multiple adversities. However, we caution against a one-size-fits-all approach that will result in further marginalisation. As a collective, we need to find responsive, innovative and inclusive strategies that consider rural students whose communities still experience social and digital divides. We thus recommend approaches that are responsive to the context of rurality that many students find themselves in. For example, we believe that paper-based or PDF materials that are pre-recorded can be sent to students on memory sticks. Working with government, universities may also need to explore the possibility of relaxing the lockdown rules in order for students to be able to obtain these learning resources.
While students are important, we also need to be critical about our institutional level of preparedness and capacity to switch to virtual platforms with the click of a finger. Have our institutions invested in the kind of institutional capacity and reform that will be responsive to COVID-19 and to what extent has rurality been considered? Sober realism is called for as well as a sense of urgency.