No data or support: the reality of learning through lockdown in South Africa’s post-school institutions.

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The digital divide impacts on students’ academic success and wellbeing, but there are ways to save the academic year and support students’ mental health, write Kristal Duncan-Williams, Clotilde Angelucci, Vuyelwa Tshoto, and Zandile Moloi.

While the impact of COVID-19 on school-going learners has featured prominently in national discourse, many students in post-school education and training institutions feel like they’ve been left to fend for themselves. “I haven’t received a computer or data. I live in an area with poor network coverage, and [to get network coverage] I have to travel to remote areas that have stable connection and it’s not safe. Online learning is stressing me out”, says Vuyelwa Tshoto, a University of Fort Hare student and a Youth Capital Influencer.

With an estimated 1.8 million students in public post-school education and training institutions and only a few months left until the end of the 2020 tertiary year, it’s hard to tell whether their academic year can be saved.

In partnership with students, Youth Capital – a youth-led campaign to address the issue of youth unemployment in South Africa – ran an online survey to spotlight the challenges tertiary students are facing while trying to learn under lockdown. Of the just over 200 students who responded, most (72%) attend university, 15% study at TVET colleges, and 13% study at private colleges.

As indicated by the results, well-resourced institutes appear to be in a better position to support their students, while under-resourced institutes, particularly TVET colleges, are struggling to assist their students with the challenge of remote learning. For example, approximately 3 in 4 respondents had received NSFAS funding during lockdown, but only 1 in 4 had received data from their institute.

The Daily Vox recently hosted a discussion with Youth Capital, Vuyelwa Tshoto, and Zandile Moloi on the challenges students in learning under lockdown.

Zero-rating websites – good, but not enough

While it isn’t a silver bullet, zero-rating educational websites is a way of making resources more equally available. In accordance with the Disaster Management Act, the Department of Higher Education and Training has approved the zero-rating of over 500 websites.

Respondents’ experiences in using zero-rated websites varied, however. While some used them without difficulty, others complained that they needed some data to connect to some zero-rated websites, and so could not access these websites even though they were zero-rated. As one of the respondents shared: “Every time I try to use them they require data; for me the zero-rated sites do not exist.”

Another challenge in accessing zero-rated websites is network coverage. A quarter of respondents noted that their ability to access a zero-rated website was hampered by poor network coverage.

Respondents also expressed frustration at the inability to attend classes, download content, or submit assignments because of their network coverage, sometimes further compounded by load shedding.

“Sometimes my network is not working properly, and I have to wait for network to come back. Sometimes it takes hours, because if there’s load shedding then there’s no network,” one respondent explained.

Mental health burden

In addition to practical challenges, online learning is also taking a toll on students in terms of their mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Sitting at home and doing nothing has brought a high level of depression to me,” said one respondent. “I am not sure whether this pandemic will end. I am losing, and everything is stressing me out,” shared another. A recent lockdown survey, by UNICEF and SALDRU, confirms the toll of depression among young South Africans, with 7 in 10 respondents admitting depression symptoms.

Studying at home is not the same

UNICEF and SALDRU’s lockdown survey reported that less than two in 10 young people had access to a study area during lockdown. This issue came up in our survey, too. Respondents reported being unable to focus on their studies due to a lack of a designated study space in their house. “There are too many distractions at home; my family doesn’t understand that I need to study”, said one of the respondents.

Respondents expressed support for the reopening of public libraries with strict social distancing measures to allow students to take advantage of the quiet space and connectivity needed to study. 

Saving the academic year – what can be done?

When asked if she thought the academic year could still be saved for students, Zandile Moloi – a student at Tshwane South TVET College, where she is the President of the students’ representative council (SRC), and a member of the South African Further Education and Training Student Association (SAFETSA) – said she is not sure, but that a good starting point would be a “willingness to come together and find actionable solutions that will make students feel supported and safe”.

For example, while respondents appreciate how proactive lecturers have been with the provision of extra resources, they expressed how difficult it is to understand new concepts without prior explanations. In addition to videos and notes, they urged for real time conversations with lecturers.

Poor infrastructure development is a reality of our country that we need to face proactively. While this challenge may take longer to remedy, increasing access to zero-rated websites is easier to fix. As Youth Capital Influencer, Vuyelwa, argues, students should be provided with enough data to enable them to log on to these websites. Tertiary institutions should collaborate with network providers to assist students with the provision of both lower priced data and reliable network coverage.

Finally, alongside academic support, it’s vital that students receive mental health support, too. For instance, the University of Fort Hare quickly introduced a programme of virtual counselling, providing students with various ways of reaching out for counselling, including calling or texting the Student Counselling Unit. 

COVID-19 has brought with it challenges that cannot be solved by students or institutions alone. To deal with this new reality, we need sustained and focused actions by governments, tertiary institutions, network operators, and students – who’ve made it this far on their educational journeys, and are desperate to keep on going.

Kristal Duncan-Williams is the Project Lead at Youth Capital, Clotilde Angelucci is the Communications and Network Strategist at Youth Capital, Vuyelwa Tshoto is the Youth Capital Influencer and Student at Fort Hare University and Zandile Moloi is SAFETSA working group, Tshwane South TVET College President General.

Featured image via Pexels

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