The global pandemic of COVID-19 is by far the most complex public health challenge in our lifetime. This public health issue has tremendously affected people’s lives and livelihoods. It is also affecting economies across the length and breadth of our world. It has changed the way we live, work and learn in the most unprecedented fashion.
Due to this crisis, institutions of higher learning have responded by shifting to online learning. The shift to online learning in South Africa and other parts of the world may exclude students from poor and working class, mostly but not solely located in rural and township areas. In this response, I will first address what necessitated shift to online learning. Secondly, I will unpack the broad implications to different individuals committed to lifelong learning and finally the lessons that could potentially be learnt from this global phenomena under the circumstances. I invite you to share your concerns, views and recommendations.
COVID-19 and shift to online learning
COVID-19 has changed our lives in the most extraordinary way. This challenge requires people to observe and practice physical distancing to reduce the spread of the virus as per the advice from health experts. As result of practice of physical distancing, conventional learning in the classroom has to migrate online and happen remotely. In a WhatsApp call with Sibusiso Gama reflecting on this matter of national importance and global significance, the President of Club Readership recommended that, “These extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.”
Indeed the pandemic has changed our ways of being and becoming, in particular, how we learn.
Implications of online learning to students from different settings
In my response to his diagnoses and clarion call, I exercised leadership by penning this reflection focusing on the shift to online learning and its implications to students in different parts of the world and across different institutions of higher learning. I drew on my unique lived experience as student reading for PhD in leadership communication at Kansas State University in the United States and experiences of both my sister (Ramadimetsa Moswane) and brother (Mickey Moswane) in South Africa studying at University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and University of Johannesburg (UJ) respectively. This piece is co-created knowledge by individuals from different institutions and study backgrounds.
In what follows, I unpack the unique experiences and collective concerns which illuminate diversity of thought, lived experiences and material conditions. As a point of departure, it has to be acknowledged that this phenomenon was unexpected, given the situation, the solutions will most likely excluded students from poor and working class condition as they are the least represented in positions of influence in institutions of higher learning and other sectors of society. Below is the juxtapositions of some concerns, recommendations, message of hope from
Mickey Moswane’s story
Mickey Moswane is a student at University of Johannesburg studying Public Relations and Communications degree, from Thabampshe Ga-Masemola in Limpopo Province, South Africa. I connected with Mickey to check on him to learn how the situation affected him and many other students. Below is what he shared:
“As a result of being on lock down and potentially shifting to online learning when we re-open, I will have to use blackboard-Ulink to do my assignments and submit them online. The challenge at hand is that, due to poor network connection at home (Thabampshe Ga-Masemola), I might have to go to internet café to do my assignments, which means I risk contact with other people. It is difficult to use my phone to do assignments. I don’t know how online learning will work for me given the situation in the rural areas.”
Mickey’s story is a story of many students from the same or even worse conditions. Some students do not have technological devices like personal computer and/or smart phones. Some even do not have access to electricity and are living under inhumane conditions in the informal settlements due to history of dispossession and persisting inequalities. Despite their conditions, the students are committed to learning, however, their learning is limited by their very material conditions. Teachers as well as institutions of higher learning committed to advancing equality and equity in society should respond with the best possible solutions not to perpetuate the existing inequalities in society, the actions of institutions and leaders will determine what they stand for.
COVID-19 has indeed revealed and unmasked the racial, social and economic divides of South Africa, and of course many parts of the world. The transition to online learning will have extreme consequences for students who are from the rural areas and township settings, they will potentially be excluded from learning if online learning commences as scheduled in some institutions. They may lose a year of study and/or fail depending on how their institutions respond. This simply means there is another crisis which is revealed, and that is, digital divide. South Africa has been characterized with triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequalities, the global pandemic has exposed the additional challenge of digital divide affecting mostly students from poor and working class conditions located in the remote rural areas and highly concentrated townships.
Ramadimetsa Moswane’s view
Ramadimetsa Moswane is studying Environmental Sciences and Geographic Information Systems at University of the Witwatersrand:
“My concern about online learning is the ability to transition from in-class learning in a short period and also learning under conditions of poor internet and network connection. However, this challenge present an opportunity to adapt to new ways of learning that are aligned with changes associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).”
In line with my younger sister’s view on shift to online learning presenting a challenge and an opportunity to adapt to new ways of learning and new ways of being as students in higher education and as people committed to lifelong learning, I hope students and teachers will find amicable solutions that will leave no students behind. This situation is a dilemma, there is no single right answer. However, I have my own fears because one of the foremost thinkers on #4IR and #Artificial intelligence Prof Thilididzi Marwala posits that, “with advancement in technologies, we must adapt to survive or risk being extinct.”
While acknowledging that these changes will affect many students in various ways and different levels. I realized how privileged I am as student at Kansas State University. I was able to shift to online learning because I have access to internet connection and I can learn from the comfort of my home in self-isolation. I am able to enjoy the privilege of being digitally connected. However, my story is not the story of for all students in my institution, there are those who do not have access like to intenet and proper network connection, there are those who do not have access to technological clasess. I do not know any because all students in my class are able to attend and I too can attend my classes, but others are in the same position like those coming from rural background, these are students I think about every day.
What can young people committed to learning do?
All students must be advocates for inclusivity in the decisions and actions of teachers, leaders, and institutions during this period. Those students who can access online learning must be allies of those who cannot and advocate for their inclusion in every possible way. Students who are unable to access online learning should communicate their situation to their teachers and institutions to avoid being academically and financially excluded. The reality is
that, the pandemic has changed conditions even for protest action, it is difficult to boycott online learning because any form of mass gathering may lead to wide spread of the virus and mass suicide. It would be advisable not to assume as a student that your teacher will know your situation. Learn to communicate and reach out even via text, call or WhatsApp if you cannot email. Use a phone of next of kin to connect with your lecture if you don’t have your own. I also want to suggest to the students who will participate in online learning to embrace technology to advance their skills and knowledge. Those students who do not have the capacity to navigate these technologies must reach out to their fellow students and mentors for guidance and support using text, call, WhatsApp and Facebook messenger as first point of connection. Be patient with yourselves in this new process of becoming and do the best you can. As you advance to use your Wits SAKAI, UJ Blackboard or any of your institutions major learning platforms, connect with your classmates to make progress academically.
There are lessons to learn from this event, experiences that are worthwhile and skills that will make some of you indispensable in the unexpected new order ushered by the pandemic. It is now undisputed truth that, all young people need to develop technological capital to prepare themselves not only for the crisis of this nature but also for the world driven by technologies of the #4IR. This global pandemic demands young people to use technologies to advance their knowledge and skills. I hope those who will be able to take part in online learning will share with those who will not be able to take part in online learning. Later when you get to campus, we urge you to develop technological skills to navigate and maneuver the 21 st century world.
Let us remain hopeful
I am of the view that, even in the midst of darkness and uncertainty, a brighter day will come. Let us remain hopeful. This is an opportunity for us to take care of ourselves and loved ones, to take care of our mental well-being, to reflect about our lives, to continue to search for our place in the world and our role in it. This is a critical moment for students committed to lifelong learning and journey of becoming to look ahead and beyond our current circumstances. This period is an opportunity to learn, unlearn and relearn about everything and anything concerning
our world outside the confines of our classrooms.
Prof Thsilidzi Marwala posted on Facebook,
“Like Sir Isaac Newton during the plague when there was a lockdown 400 years ago, you should discover your own gravity (Tshilidzi Marwala, 27-03-2020, 11:24am).” Indeed we shall overcome!!
Mafule is reading for his PhD in leadership communication at Kansas State University and writes
in his personal capacity.
10 April 2020