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Online learning – The pandemic cannot change reality

Universities in South Africa are facing several challenges due to the high enrolment of first-year students from diverse social backgrounds. A considerable number of these students are from poor communities in the rural areas and townships. Many come from schools that are under-resourced and have little or no exposure to ICT in teaching and learning. These students might not have had access to computers prior to their education at university.

These characteristics impede their transition into computer-based learning systems and any type of online technologies that support teaching and learning. Despite the belief that most young people today are “digital natives” who have used technology such as mobile phones and computers their whole lives, they are not always able to translate such experience into online learning.

It is important for higher education institutions to consider the cultural and environmental assumptions underpinning the construct of “digital natives”.

The reality is that the majority of our first-year students are in fact “digital strangers” and they face serious challenges in transiting to computer-based technologies and any type of online-based technology for teaching and learning. Furthermore, they often do not receive the required support even when enrolled at universities.

Consequently, this has had a negative impact on their successful transition to university study as it involves a complex process that requires new skills acquisition, new technology usage, new ways of learning and adjustment to a different social environment.

Inadequate support

Most universities today are using online application and registration systems as well as a blended learning approach which combines online learning with face-to-face teaching. Students are forced through this method to learn by themselves – but without proper support. Orientation programmes for online learning at most universities are largely informative rather than supportive in terms of online learning.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has necessitated a rapid move to online learning. But the reality is that some higher education institutions have not even completed registration and orientation of first-year students, and other academic-related activities, owing to student protests and other administrative issues regarding admissions, timetables and programme alignment. That is before we even begin to discuss the issues of lack of infrastructure for online learning and capacity among staff.

The other challenge is that students in rural areas have difficulties with network coverage, and irregular electricity supply. Many are first-generation students, which means there is no academic support at home.

In view of these challenges facing students and the challenges facing institutions, the big question is: “What model will be suitable to deliver education during lockdown and after the lockdown, while we wait for life to normalise in our society?”

Given both the institutional and student challenges, it is unrealistic for higher education institutions to advocate a fully online approach to teaching and learning bearing in mind that for many years there have been stumbling blocks to e-learning integration and adoption in higher education.

Flipping the classroom is still a dream that has to come through for most rural higher education institutions and as much as we’d like to hope, the COVID-19 outbreak can never be the agent to bring it to pass.

Lack of policy

And while e-learning has theoretically been in place for years in most of these institutions, the reality is that there are no policies in most of the higher education institutions to promote online teaching and learning. Hence, most of these institutions have been spending millions of rand on licence renewals for something that they don’t use.

Given the critical context and importance of technologies as core elements of educational development in higher education, it is of the essence that higher education institutions develop strategies and programmes to assess first-year students and support them in technology-related learning, before and during their first-year experience.

There is a need to modify the current orientation programme model so as to introduce students more fully to learning tools such as online library databases, Turnitin and other plagiarism software, mobile device use, and so on.

These strategies can only be possible if there are policies in place supported by the university management. This will lead to the more wholesale adoption by academics of the online project and facilitate the successful transition of these students from high school to university in a computer-based learning environment.

Short-term solutions

However, in the more immediate term, to deal with the lockdowns, universities need to develop a short-term plan that will cater both for students who have full access to online resources and those who do not. Thus, there should be an online delivery model during the current lockdown that will be supported with a sort of winter and-or summer school when classes resume, to bridge the gap for all students before we even start thinking about developing any assessment plans.

For now, the reality is that most returning students have some knowledge about how to use online platforms for learning but first-year students will be at disadvantage, in some cases having to engage with classmates and lecturers they have never met, and on a platform they’ve never been trained to use before.

Given this critical situation that is affecting the future of some of our students, there is a need for conversations and actions to shape a way forward for the 2020 academic year and beyond.

Munienge Mbodila is a faculty member at Walter Sisulu University in the department of information technology systems, faculty of economics and information technology systems at the Queenstown campus.

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