African students see inequalities in e-learning. Photo: iStock
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Student bodies say e-learning is unaffordable and elitist

The adoption of e-learning as an innovative means to continue teaching and learning during the national lockdowns affecting many African countries has been rejected by a number of student organisations, which argue it is unaffordable, impractical and elitist.

Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) spokesperson Allan G Mawaya said in a statement that the union’s position, after “consideration of the majority of students and their benefactors”, was “a total rejection” of the Zimbabwe government’s e-learning proposals.

Mawaya said the proposals ignored the fact that the vast majority of students have no access to reliable electricity and network connections, considering that only 41% of Zimbabwe have access to electricity, as stated by the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company, and an even smaller share have access to mobile networks.

The matter came to a head in a dispute between students and the privately-run Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University, which asked students to register for online studies by paying fees for the first semester or risk exclusion from accessing the e-platforms.

Access to internet and electricity

The students said the e-platform was not only beyond the reach of many students due to expensive internet, poor connectivity and electricity shortages but would marginalise those with outstanding fees.

Zimbabwe has some of the continent’s most expensive mobile data tariffs.

The country’s higher education institutions and schools were ordered to close in March to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We express our concerns over how such platforms have only become accessible to students who have paid up full fees,” said ZINASU Secretary General Tapiwanashe Chiriga. “While we recognise the need to continue with learning during this terrible time and the need to embrace innovation and technology, it is our position that learning at all material times should be accessible and affordable to all students.”

Everton Mutsauri, the president of the student command of the little-known Economic Freedom Fighters-Zimbabwe, has berated Great Zimbabwe University for using “Google class” and the Midlands State University for adopting WhatsApp to conduct lessons, describing the new methods as elitist.

“It is important for policy-makers and the universities to look at the very high data tariffs. Only the elite will be able to attend all online lectures. This is an example of policies being enacted by the elite for the elites,” he said in statement.

ZINASU estimates that over 8,000 students have deferred their studies in 2020 as a result of economic hardships.

The criticism of online tuition by students comes after the government last week advised all universities to expedite the development of materials for online lectures to ensure that teaching and learning are not disrupted by the lockdown.

Chiriga said ZINASU has asked government to facilitate the zero-rating of all academic websites for access by students. “Another way would be to create data bundles or data bouquets tailor-made for university students to access e-learning,” he said.

The Zimbabwe Chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists said alternative learning methods are welcome during lockdown, but it is also important to check their accessibility so that they do not deepen inequalities among students.

Ghana – Concerns around fees, examinations

Meanwhile in Ghana, the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) has called on the government to stop online learning in universities until a resolution between students and university authorities had been reached.

Students say universities should stop demanding fees from students seeking access to online learning platforms and has called on universities to refrain from conducting any examinations or assessments during the lockdown period.

“Conducting such exams and assessments would disadvantage the many students who, by no fault of their own, were unable to participate in the e-learning process,” a union statement said.

The statement signed by NUGS President Isaac Jay Hyde said the authorities must also ensure that students are given financial waivers like free online data and bursaries to continue learning.

An evaluation conducted among students in some universities as of 14 April indicated that there were a number of accessibility challenges associated with the implementation of the e-learning platforms for university education.

“Apart from the University of Ghana, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, University of Education Winneba and a few other institutions, a number of universities still haven’t announced or made any attempt to see how they can bridge the wide digital gap among their students.”

A host of private universities were lagging behind in implementation measures with regards to e-learning platforms, it said.

“Universities should be directed to put a temporary hold on all financial regimens demanded of students, especially those on the Student Loan Trust Fund scheme, until they get their allocation for the second semester,” it said.

South Africa – Calls for boycott

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the South African Students Congress (SASCO) has called for a national boycott of online learning, arguing that it is not equally available to all students.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Professor Adam Habib criticised as “irresponsible” subsequent comments on Twitter by Deputy Minister of Higher Education Buti Manamela who said universities starting online classes this week on 20 April (including Wits) were violating an agreement with all stakeholders to work to a later date.

Habib denied there was a “violation” of a national agreement and said an agreement to try to start the online learning process (beginning with an orientation programme) was taken through the forum of Universities South Africa, the representative body for all public university vice-chancellors.

“We agreed to enable multiple pathways of learning and to ensure that all students are given a fair opportunity to complete the year,” he tweeted.

Outlining the measures taken by Wits University to ensure students were ready for online learning, Habib said the university was lending 5,000 laptops to disadvantaged students. He said all lectures would be recorded on the university’s learning management system and could be accessed at the student’s convenience with academics on standby to assist students. The next two weeks would be used to acclimatise to the online learning process, he said.

No tests or assignments would be due until 4 May, the Wits library and learning sites were zero-rated and students had been given 30GB of data for one month on any of the four major mobile networks.

He said for those who can’t manage online learning, “additional measures will be put into place when contact teaching resumes”.

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