Is the pandemic leading to a more democratized education system?

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In 2020, the world was turned on its head with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. As people grappled with a life in lockdown, it also resulted in several significant changes – especially for universities who are now moving one step closer towards a more democratized education system.

In order to achieve this, however, South Africa will need to tackle one of the biggest hurdles that prevents equitable access for all – closing the digital divide.

This is the view of Leana de Beer, Chief Executive Officer of student crowdfunding platform Feenix, who explains that universities in South Africa have quickly adapted to online and distance-based operating models to ensure continued learning during the lockdown.

While this is good for ensuring greater access to education in the long-term, De Beer says that in order for a hybrid or digital approach to learning to work it is important that the resources are made accessible to support the needs of everyone, including those with disabilities, underprivileged students, faculty, and other stakeholders.

“While the advances in online learning have been phenomenal, to truly create a democratized education system it needs to be accessible to everyone in the country. This was a massive challenge over the last year, where we saw thousands of students struggling to continue their studies as a result of a lack of resources, computers and data,” she points out.

Dean Kleinbooi, a fifth-year medical student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, explains that the full impact of the lockdown really hit him when he was not able to access both the university’s resources or his practicals during the lockdown. “I didn’t own a computer, so this made it incredibly difficult for me to continue my studies.”

Kleinbooi was able to push through to ensure that he finished the year strong thanks to the donation of a laptop through Feenix’s Cap the Gap campaign run last year to help provide students with access to data and laptops to continue their studies.

“Having a solid support system and people around me that were always willing to help became my greatest strength, I couldn’t have done it on my own.”  

This year, higher education institutions will ultimately need to prepare for an intermediate period of transition and begin future proofing their institutions for the long-term. In a report published by Coursera, it predicted that even when some students come back to campus, professors and lecturers who are at a higher health risk may still need to teach remotely. Additionally, classes may need to be continually reconfigured as social distancing measures loosen and tighten based on the risk of virus spread and the distribution of the vaccine.

Globally, many countries have started the new year by relying solely on remote learning or using it as a supplement to face-to-face interactions. In Mexico, for example, students will be receiving lessons via TV or radio in 2021. Cities in the United States such as Atlanta, Houston, Miami, and Washington DC have announced exclusive use of online for the first semester of the 2021 academic year.

“The days of seeing 400 students in a packed lecture hall is by all indications a thing of the past. This past year proved to everyone that technology has advanced far enough for us to look at new ways of teaching,” says De Beer.

With concern about the spread of Covid-19 on campuses, she explains that South Africa can expect to see a continued mode of e-learning with an integrated approach to blended education, teaching and assessments.

“Programmes, services, and resources will continue to expand exponentially and, as we have seen, will become increasingly techno-centric.”

Apart from access to resources, one key component to successfully integrate this teaching approach into South Africa will be to improve the computer literacy of students. “The reality is that many students have never owned or had the opportunity to properly use computers, especially not for their studies,” De Beer points out.

“For both the public and private sector, more will need to be done to improve the computer skills of learners to bring them into the digital age.”

It is an adjustment that many South African university students have had to deal with. Master of Science in Agriculture student, Zinhle Mkhonto, acknowledged that being in a classroom environment or a laboratory is quite different to online learning.

“You take for granted the value of in-person interactions. The shift to online required a lot more concentration and collaboration. It also required me to improve my digital skills to ensure uninterrupted online learning. I have thankfully become a lot more tech savvy and have gained several digital skills that I would never have had the opportunity to learn before.”

De Beer says that the big question, considering the change in teaching methodologies, is whether universities and traditional student funding models are still designed to meet students’ needs – both in terms of connectivity and in financial affordability.

“What we hope to see in the near future is a shift of priorities and costs. With more students connecting to lectures from home, universities (with the support of both the private and public sectors) will have to rethink how they deliver education in a way that helps to close the digital divide, as well as reduce fees for those who opt to stay online rather than going back to campus. Added to this, funding will need to factor in the resources needed for those who choose to go digital,” adds De Beer.

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