Online studying without affordable data and free access to all educational websites will be impossible for most students -such access must be provided immediately

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By: Carl Niehaus

This week various universities, among others the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and University of Pretoria (TUKS), proceeded with study-programs of online lectures. The University of South Africa (UNISA), being a correspondence university, had a bit of a head start in doing so. Apparently UNISA also decided to conduct online mid-year exams next month. On face value these decisions seem to provide hope for students that the 2020 academic year would not be wasted.

However, in our deeply unequal society, with unequal access to everything, ensuring that students will have access to online lectures, and study material, is not easy at all.

As with access to medical care, food and adequate accommodation – in fact everything – the severe stresses and strains that the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown place on our society, only further expose and intensify the deep fault lines of inequality and poverty that already existed.

Students are certainly not exempt from any of this. With the closure of all schools and tertiary academic institutions students had to vacate places of student accommodation and return back home.

For a small minority (of mostly white students) this meant returning to suburban homes, with their own rooms, and with parents who are able to provide for them. They are mostly in areas with good data networks, and high-speed Wi-Fi that their parents pay for. However, for the vast majority of black students it meant the exact opposite. They returned to poverty, overcrowded homes and a daily battle for enough money to buy food. It must seem to many of these students that the lockdown had plunged them straight back into the conditions of poverty that they are hoping to escape for themselves, and their families, through studying.

These students are constantly encouraged to continue with their studies online at home, but this is easier said than done. In a quiet suburban home, this is certainly possible, but how do you do that when you share a bedroom with younger siblings, and everywhere in the small house, or shack, there is noise, with other members of your family talking, and going about their daily business? Far too often there is no electricity, especially in rural areas, or the electricity supply is unreliable and intermittent. The massive divide between the small group of haves, and the large number of have nots, among our student population, cannot be more glaring.

This is similarly true for access to computers, and other IT equipment that students require to be able to study online. A conservative estimation indicates that at least 25% of students do not have computers, and other hardware required, to study online. Some of these students previously found a way around this problem by going to internet cafes, or using computers in libraries. Those options are not available during the lockdown. Many more are battling just to purchase pre-paid airtime for their phones. Often they are confronted with the terrible choice to either buy airtime, or food.

The very high cost of data in South Africa only adds to the almost insurmountable challenges that poor students are faced with to study online. To this must be added to the uneven distribution of data availability throughout our country, and often the lack thereof in rural areas. With the lockdown many students have been forced to return to their rural homes, with as a consequence that in the off-chance that they actually do have the money to buy expensive data, they simply do not have access to a data network, or the network reception in their area is so week that it is useless. For the many students who find themselves in this situation it puts pay to any hopes to study online.

The efforts of universities to provide students without computers with laptops are laudable. However, the challenges to get these to the students in remote areas in time, or at all, are huge – especially with the limitations on movement, and the lack of courier services. Add to this the challenges of safeguarding such sensitive and breakable equipment from damage and theft in poor and overcrowded living conditions, and it becomes evident that it is a Herculean – almost impossible – mission, to equip every student with an online computer that will remain operational for the many hours required to conduct successful online classes, studying, and the writing of exams,

Our student population never, even before the lockdown, were able to all study under the same conditions. However, as with everything else, the coronavirus pandemic has intensified these disparities to breaking point. Let’s be real, for many of them it is now no longer possible to study at all. These harsh realities of students from tertiary educational institutions are even worse for learners at primary and secondary schools. Being younger and even more dependent, their situation is actually far more precarious.

It is crucial that all of this must be appreciated, and there must be sympathy and understanding for how devastating it is for many young people. Their study dreams are being shattered in a harsh economic environment where unemployment is already awfully high.

Our educational institutions, and our society as a whole, need to realize that to present online learning as the answer for the majority of students, under the current conditions, is not realistic. In fact it is a pipe dream. To present that dream as the solution may make some of us feel better, but in reality it only deepens the sense of loss and deprivation for the majority of students. It certainly also intensifies the gross unfairness of a small minority of wealthier, privileged, students (the majority of whom are white), being able to proceed with their studies, while the majority of poor black students are once again left behind, and plunged into deeper poverty and despair.

I am certainly not trying undermine hope, nor encourage despair, but for the sake of honesty these issues must be raised. They must also be raised in order to understand the legacy of apartheid that we are still confronted with on a daily basis.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the failures of our government in the past to act more decisively to address the unacceptable high cost of data, are now impacting on our ability to deal effectively with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The awful dilly-dallying with digital migration, and to open more spectrum to network providers, is now haunting us. It is always the most vulnerable who, through no fault of their own, become the victims of the foibles and failures, of those who are supposed to lead, serve, and protect them.

Under the current very limiting circumstances it will not be possible to immediately, and adequately, address these failures, but some steps must be taken to try and ameliorate the deep educational crisis we are confronted with.

Government should intervene with cellular network providers to drastically bring down the cost of data for all users. This should be enforced by government to happen immediately for the rest of the duration of the lockdown. All educational websites and portals should be zero cost rated, and students must get free access, similarly to what has already been done with regards to the government COVID19 website.

These steps are the bare minimum that are required in order avoid an educational disaster, and the almost total exclusion of the majority of mostly black students from being able to continue with any successful education.

Of course these are emergency measures, and important as they are to provide some relief, they are not the answer for the longer term future of education in our country.

As with everything else the coronavirus pandemic is a massive wake-up call for our whole society. We simply cannot continue in the same manner that we have been doing things. It can never again be ‘business as usual’.

Once the coronavirus pandemic, and lockdown, are behind us service delivery to, and the empowerment of the majority of black (especially African poor), will have to be radically restructured, and improved. We cannot allow the spatial planning of apartheid to remain, nor perpetuated by continuing to build poor quality housing, and delivering poor services, in the wrong geographical areas.

The increasing privatization and individualization of essential services to the rich, who can buy it, while the majority of poor are increasingly disadvantaged and left further and further behind, must stop forthwith.

Thus, with regards to our overall student population our society must provide far better living environments and accommodation, where they will have the space and privacy to be able to study. Affordable, and available, data must become permanent for all students, supplemented by free community high-speed Wi-Fi networks. In many other countries this is already the norm, and it could have been achieved in South Africa too if our government, especially municipalities, were more forward thinking. The cost to provide such community WiFi services is not prohibitive, it is all about having the right priorities.

Of course all these provisions will come at some financial cost (some of it more expensive than others), but this is a cost that the rich must not – from their positions of luxury and comfort – dare tell us that we cannot afford. The cost of not delivering these essential services is far higher, and more devastating to the whole fabric of our society.

As the coronavirus pandemic showed us, any further delays and failures to do so, will be callous in the extreme, and indeed unforgivable. It can never acceptable to condemn the majority of black children to lives of poor, stunted, education and unemployability. When we say that black lives matter, it must most certainly mean that the future lives, and educational progress, of our black children and youth matter.