Disadvantaged university students on online learning: “Some don’t even own smartphones”

University student studying from her bed (PHOTO: James Woodson/Getty Images)
University student studying from her bed (PHOTO: James Woodson/Getty Images)
James Woodson

Enrolling in university is a big achievement for many, especially those who are the first in their families to study towards obtaining a degree. But regulations around the containment of Covid-19 and the resulting changes may leave many students feeling as if they won’t achieve their goals of one day graduating varsity.

Following the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of a nationwide 21-day lockdown, institutions of higher learning across the country have had to suspend contact classes and find alternative ways of continuing with their academic programmes. Online distance learning has been introduced to replace face-to-face sessions. This means students and lecturers have had to prepare for a new way of teaching and learning.

Read more: The effect is immense, say students scrambling to make adjustments over coronavirus

Institutions that have started implementing this include the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Mangosuthu University of Technology, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

The living circumstances and finances of individual students in the institutions vary greatly, and it is in times like these that many may find themselves at a further disadvantage.

Universities had to evacuate residences last week to combat the spread of Covid-19, resulting in many students ending up back home, far from internet access and other resources that they used to access their learning material. In light of these developments, how accessible will education be for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have internet access at home?

Read more: Coronavirus: National state of disaster takes effect with publishing of gazetted regulations

Gasant Abarder, the media, marketing and communications manager at UWC, tells DRUM the institution has a well-established learning management system which will enable students to continue studying remotely. He says this platform “allows lecturers to use various e-tools for teaching, learning and assessment purposes”.

But Thabo Silimela, a postgraduate student at UWC, says he relied on internet access and labs on campus and at his workplace to access his learning material. “It was easier being able to be on campus or at work, I could easily access everything I needed there, now I have to do everything from home.”

Among his frustrations is the cost of data which he needs in order to receive communication from the institution and his lecturers. He says buying data is expensive and unsustainable.

The effect of the pandemic and lockdown is felt by students across institutions. Ofentse Mehlape, a third-year chemical engineering student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology also expresses concerns over the migration from contact classes to online learning.

Read more: Date for the reopening of schools only likely to be finalised after the 21-day lockdown period

He says lecturers are “trying through using their resources” to make sure students are up to date with their work and assignments, but it is still hard to adapt to this.

Ofentse adds that he has classmates who’ve had to return to their homes after the evacuation of university residences last week. “It is so unfair on them because they’re in the rural areas; the network is bad, some don’t even own smartphones.”

When asked about students’ concerns with regards to data costs and accessibility, Abarder says Telkom has agreed to zero-rate the UWC domain. This means students who are Telkom users will be able to access the domain without having to worry about data costs. He further says they’re “currently engaging Vodacom, MTN and Cell C to provide a similar zero-rated data service”.

The institution is in constant contact with its students and student leadership, Abarder says. “The formal plans will be announced to the student body and academics next week. In the meantime, students can access their lecturers and tutors remotely to deal with queries and concerns.”

With the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, there is also uncertainty about where the academic year is headed for most students who find themselves in similar situations to those of Thabo and Ofentse. As changes are being implemented, many are left hoping the universities can uphold the rights of students to access the education they so rightly deserve.

Some universities, such as UCT and Wits, have made provision for its students.

According to the Daily Maverick, UCT says laptops have been provided to all students on financial aid and they are making arrangements for free access to their online resources.

“All online teaching will have low-tech options so that students with low-bandwidth connections can participate fully,” UCT said in a statement issued on 22 March.

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