e-learning in COVID-19: South Africa’s unequal experience

South Africa looks to adjust to a “new normal” under its new COVID-19 level one regulations, and a part of this transition should include addressing the digital divide in its schooling system.

When South Africa went into hard lockdown at the end of March, school children, like most citizens, were forced to work from home — highlighting a growing digital divide in its school system.

While the transition to online learning may have been smooth sailing for some, Timna Alam, an Optimistic Youth Reporter from the Centre of Science and Technology in Cape Town, said learning subjects at home such as ICT “can be really difficult” for children without a laptop.

“Living in a disadvantaged community where comfort is limited and a place to study can be really difficult to find, it got me thinking that online learning really works for advantaged societies where there would be no lack of data usages or a lack of laptops,” Alam said.

In her The Conversation Africa article, Mmaki Jantjies, an associate professor in information systems at the University of the Western Cape said e-learning in South Africa, as in most developing countries, has not provided a fair playing ground to school children.

“Teachers have varying digital skills. Many families and teachers also cannot afford the data necessary to sustain some online learning activities,” she said.

According to We Are Social 2020 statistics, internet penetration stands at 62% in South Africa. However, the cost of data in comparison to other African countries remains relatively higher, according to a Business Insider article.

Looking more broadly, a UNICEF report says barely one in five households have internet penetration in Eastern and Southern Africa, “while 84% of the rural population — where the bulk of the learners reside — have no electricity” to begin with.

Even for those with access to electricity, online learning can be disrupted by the loadshedding of power at “random times” as grade 8 learner Precious Maluleka has experienced.

“It comes at random times and often disrupts our classes and delays progress and when the teacher has issues with Wi-Fi it inconveniences all of us,” Maluleka said.

Matric student Wandiswa Nkosi also said loadshedding has made online learning harder. However, she added that her own mental burnout also made it difficult to stay plugged in.

Nkosi said her biggest challenge was staying awake. Mental exhaustion caused by heightened time spent online during the pandemic has been termed “Zoom fatigue”. Writing on this, National Geographic said “virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain”.

“It was so easy to just go online and then sleep, and I've just missed so many lessons so now I have to catch up on a lot of work which is difficult,” she said.

Most children returned to face-to-face teaching at the end of August. Puseletso Tsiyane, a young reporter from Moutse Community Radio in Moutse, Limpopo, said this brings its own complications.

“Young people [have to] work to catch up on what they have missed and of course continue to follow the public COVID-19 safety measures,” she said.

For Tsiyane, the e-learning experience provides an opportunity to relook at the education system to make it more inclusive.

“We need to come together and find solutions that work for everyone. We want equal education for all. We need equal education for all,” she said.

This article was adapted from the “Online Learning during COVID-19” Children's Radio Foundation podcast. Listen to the podcast here.

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