Usually at 7AM Kerishini would be frantically rushing to her first seminar of the day. But in the closing months of the 2016 academic year, she was one of the thousands of students whose classes were cancelled or chose to stay home during the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests.
“I wasn’t terrified of failing or doing badly like I usually am,” she says, “I was just scared of being caught in the crossfire at campus. Even though it’s calm at campus right now, I’m still scared. The protests are very unpredictable.”
While the headlines have focussed on campus closures and violence, Kerishini and fellow Bachelor of Science classmates at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are among those who have chosen to carry on with their studies, and as a result have found themselves moving to online lectures to stay on top of their coursework. And so, far, Kerishini has been seeing an upside to the whole affair.
The decision to take the classes online was taken by Kerishini’s tutor.
“One of my lecturers records himself doing each lecture and uploads them on our learning website,” Kerishini says. “He also decided to post tutorials online instead of having face-to-face tutorials however, we can meet the tutors during the tutorial time if we need help.”
Kerishini is just one of many students who have felt that they had to resort to learning remotely as protests saw many university campuses too dangerous to be on or closed down altogether. Most universities already had tools which have been in development or in early stages of deployment, preparing for a future in which online learning will become a core part of university education, helping to reduce costs and make courses more accessible to all.
At many institutions these have quickly pressed into full service with students and lecturers who didn’t want to take part in the protests for whatever reason turning to them to get through.
We spoke to Anna-Retha Bouwer, a spokeswoman for the University of Pretoria (UP) about the arrangements the faculty made for remote learning.
“The University decided to resume its academic programme by implementing arrangements alternative to on-campus lectures after the wave of protest action that has been experienced at various institutions of higher learning over the past weeks,” Bouwer says.
Tools for learning
UP has been using a platform called Blackboard for supplementing face-to-face learning for some time. ClickUP, the internal name for the system, is used for student registration and submitting coursework, but during #FeesMustFall it’s become an alternative for students like Kerishani who haven’t felt safe coming onto campus.
“All lecture and study material will be made available by the faculties either online or by other means. In cases where contact between students and lecturers is required, arrangements will be made with students per module via their respective faculties, and communicated on clickUP,” the university says on its website.
The University of the Witswatersrand (Wits) has also pushed its existing tools into service at an accelerated rate.
“Prior to 2015 eLearning was a standalone unit in the university. In 2015, eLearning was integrated into the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Development,” says Head of eLearning at WITS, Dr Nico Baird, “This signalled a shift away from seeing eLearning as a ‘nice-to-have’, towards mainstreaming the use of technology into the planning and delivery of all teaching and learning practices in the university.”known as Wits-e, more effectively. The launch of three massive open online courses through edX has also contributed significantly to research regarding the scalability and best practices of the remote learning solutions.
This insight has proved invaluable as Wits launched a way for lecturers to lecture and students to learn when university campus became too dangerous for some.
“One solution which has been fast-tracked as result of the protests is lecture capture,” says Baird, “We planned to roll out a lecture streaming pilot study in the first semester of 2017. Following the protests, we decided to make a scaled down version of the service available immediately, to allow students to more easily access material for exam preparation. We are currently rolling out a lecture capture and distribution service in partnership with Grove Group, a Google Premier Partner.”
Problem solving while problem solving
If #FeesMustFall has proved an unexpected test ground for future online learning tools in South African universities, it’s also revealed weaknesses within the systems. As ever, it’s connectivity that’s the biggest issue, especially for those students who don’t have access once they leave the campus grounds. This has made some angry, as it accentuates the divide between the haves and have-nots.
“We use campus WiFi, but nobody gives a fuck if you have to use internet elsewhere. In fact, I don’t think it’s come up at all,” says UKZN tutor Jesamine Rikisahedew, who is also studying for a masters in Biological Science.
That’s not to say no-one’s come forward to try to help: Cell C, MTN and Telkom have all offered to zero-rate traffic to university websites until the end of the 2016 academic year. This offer was seized by a number of local universities, including Wits and UKZN.
“We have provided them [network operators] with specific IP addresses and, until the end of the year, students will be able to access these services without it using their own data,” says Baird.
Telkom has told us that UKZN has taken also taken it up on its offer.
Despite the cost of data coming down there is of course the question of what students have to use to access this content.
“Due to the nature of the strikes at the Westville Campus, not everyone can access the LANs. They get kept inside by protesters,” says Rikisahedew.
Not everyone has a notebook
So it’s not just the cost of data that’s an issue. Many students at our universities don’t have computers right now. UKZN, for example, did make it compulsory for first years to have a notebook from this year – and allocated notebooks to NSFAS students – but that means those in other cohorts still studying don’t have tools to access the net at all. Wits’ Baird is well aware of the lack of reliable access to computers off-campus too.
The net result of this is that many students have to use their smartphones to access this content. Not ideal, but reportedly workable.
“Our software solutions increasingly emphasise design for mobile devices, and interfaces which work on low-cost mobile phones,” Baird says.
As exams approach, Kerishini says she’s coped well with the disruptions but she relies heavily on her own discipline to make sure she studies. “I’m fortunate enough to be disciplined enough to work when I need to. I procrastinate sometimes but I get the work done.”[Main Image – CC ND BY 2.0 Shaylor]