Online Learning - A Brilliant Solution (For Those Who Can Afford It)

We are in the middle of a nation-wide lockdown, which has brought about many challenges. People are losing their jobs and many are without shelter and food. It is a time when our country’s deep-rooted inequalities and injustices are perpetuated further and the gap between rich and poor just keeps getting bigger.

One of the challenges plaguing our education system is the completion of the 2020 academic year. How do students continue learning? Campus and schools are shut down, libraries and computer labs are closed, university residences are cleared and students have been sent home. While we are grateful for our government’s decisions to enforce a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, the consequences for the majority of students are severe.

On face value, the solution seems simple: online learning. It gives students the freedom to work at their own pace with a lot of flexibility. Educators can customise the learning platforms, online quizzes can be used for revision and lecture videos can be watched repeatedly and at the students’ own pace. Students are required to work from home to complete tasks and learn what is covered in the curriculum. Podcasts, lecture videos and virtual online meetings are just some of the technologies available for online learning. This means, no more early mornings of traffic on your way to class, the freedom to work at your own pace and you do not even have to get out of bed (or switch Netflix off). Sounds amazing, right? No - not to everyone.

South African students come from a diverse background: some live in mansions with gardens, swimming pools and wealthy parents, and others in rural areas without shelter or running water. Some students have MacBooks, iPhones, and fibre internet available at their disposal, and others have no cell signal where they live or even electricity to charge devices (which they cannot afford to buy in the first place). 

Do you think online learning is going to be the same for all 800 000 students in South Africa? Approximately 500 000 students are reliant on financial aid and many of them are living in rural areas without internet connectivity. Access to smartphones, laptops and even just cell signal are a challenge for many students. This makes access to online resources impossible. South Africa has a deep rooted history of racism, inequality and poverty. Many students struggle to be able to buy groceries, pay rent and just survive. When campus resources such as computer labs and libraries are closed, some students are unable to complete assignments, do tests or even just receive updates from their university.

Online learning seems to be just another way to place already privileged people at an advantage. Students from a better socio-economic class are going to fare much better. They enjoy quality meals and watch lecture videos online without a problem. They can type essays on their laptops and access millions of online resources without a problem. However, what about our students living in rural areas without electricity and water? What about our students who go hungry at night and live in abusive, unsafe environments? Or, students who do not have laptops or smartphones? Online learning excludes so many students. What about visually-impaired students who cannot necessarily access online resources? What about students who live in areas without cell signal or internet? 

Online learning is no-doubt a fantastic tool in our technological era. However, we need to be mindful of how the use of it perpetuates the inequalities in our society. Online learning seems to be a classist, elite approach that disadvantages our most vulnerable students. It is insensitive, exclusive and flourishes only at the highest waves of privilege. Education is power and online learning ensures that education is only enjoyed by a privileged few.