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Concerned academics call for halt to online learning

Concerned academics call for halt to online learning

Academics from several universities throughout South Africa have demanded an immediate halt to formal online learning at universities, warning that continuation would result in an “academic disaster” and compound the effects of the pandemic.

Given the social and economic inequality in South Africa, they argue that “it is not only unrealistic but inhumane to continue with the formally planned online curriculum for 2020”, the academics said in a document entitled Public Universities with a Public Conscience: A proposed plan for a social pedagogy alternative in the time of pandemic.

The document, posted online by Professor Salim Vally, director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, said the document “builds on scenarios put forward by the Black Academic Caucus and the C19 People’s Coalition Post-School Working Group”.

On Tuesday, using Zoom, an estimated 250 academics took part in a “People’s Assembly” to discuss how teaching at both tertiary institutions and schools can bridge the digital divide during COVID-19.

State-level intervention

In addition to the cessation of online learning, the document prepared by the coalition calls for “state-level intervention in resourcing and infrastructure development; academic, financial and accommodation protection for students; and labour protection for education workers”.

Vice-chancellors of South Africa’s 26 public universities, under the auspices of Universities South Africa, agreed they would aim to start their online teaching and learning programmes this week on 20 April if possible. On Monday, several universities launched their online activities with student orientation programmes, alongside a range of other contingency and continuity plans to ensure connectivity for students and access to the necessary electronic devices.

However, some student bodies have rejected the move to online teaching and learning and the start date of 20 April was criticised on Twitter by Deputy Minister of Higher Education Buti Manamela.

Civil society organisations such as Equal Education and the Bench Marks Foundation have endorsed the initiative, while academics supportive of the plan are drawn from the universities of Cape Town, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Johannesburg, Sol Plaatje, the Witwatersrand, and Fort Hare, among other institutions.

The coalition of academics has emphasised the need for consultation, a roll-out of technology and a phased approach to a return to campus when it is safe to do so.

Vally, who is part of the coalition’s Post-School Working Group, said the approach was guided by four principles: inclusivity and participation; equity and equality; transformation and decolonisation; and academic development and progress with integrity.

Differences in resourcing

He said urban-based universities were better resourced and able to negotiate free data for their students to study remotely, while some institutions were also providing gadgets, but this was not the norm at the majority of public universities.

He said the proposal seeks to ensure that the country does not worsen the existing digital divide, fuelling class and race divisions and spatial challenges.

The coalition’s proposal suggests a three-phase approach:

1. Dialogue with students, teachers and communities to map the context collaboratively, and to adapt curricula appropriately and develop pedagogic strategies for the delivery of a socially just programme.

2. Roll-out of a supportive, structured but flexible learning process that employs subject-specific knowledge drawing on existing curricula; adapted teaching materials that engage with the material and social effects of the current crisis; and formative assessments.

3. Return to campus-based teaching when deemed safe. Feed the material and experience of phase 1 and 2 into the formal curriculum. Continue with formative assessments and restructure summative assessments for fairness and academic integrity.

A phased approach would take cognisance of the context in which the majority of universities and their students exist instead of unilaterally forcing them to work online and providing a small amount of data which would be used quickly if students accessed videos for learning, said Vally.

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