Dark divide: the very different experiences of students trying ...

News

Dark divide: the very different experiences of students trying to e-learn

We ask students how their tertiary institutions are rising to the challenge. Some are. Others most definitely are not

Journalist
Thousands of students are learning online, but there are a number of challenges.
THE GREAT DIVIDE Thousands of students are learning online, but there are a number of challenges.
Image: 123RF/Sergey Rasulov

Uncertainty hangs over the academic year after many institutions extended their deadline for deregistration in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What has emerged is what education expert and University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) professor Wayne Hugo describes as a “dark divide”, where historically white institutions and private colleges have successfully rolled out e-learning to students, while other institutions have not started online learning or have had limited success. 

More than 55 days after tertiary institutions closed, 10 students tell Times Select how they are navigating the challenges of studying from home.

Zamile Zuma.
FORTUNATE Zamile Zuma.
Image: Supplied

ZAMILE ZUMA, THIRD- YEAR: MARKETING AT ROSEBANK COLLEGE

For Zuma, access to online material and engaging with lecturers has not been difficult. Her biggest challenge has been dealing with the emotional and mental burden that comes with learning under lockdown.

“I have been more fortunate than a lot of the students in the country, but mentally, emotionally it has been a lot. I suffer from heavy anxiety. The change introduces a lot of challenges that are more in your head and that you have to fight every day ... no one really cares about that stuff,” she says.

Through her institution’s e-learning programme, she attends classes, submits assignments and takes tests using the same time table she used before the lockdown. She is able to communicate with her lecturers via various platforms and has access to the institution’s librarian. Though able to get through most of her work, finding the space to study at home has been difficult.

“Everyone is at home. Studying has been very difficult because there is no peace, there is no space. I am a night owl, so everything I need to get done I do at night, because I can’t bear the noise in the afternoon," says Zuma.

Ndaene Lephale.
NO PLAN Ndaene Lephale.
Image: supplied

NDAENE LEPHALE, THIRD-YEAR BACHELOR OF ADMINISTRATION IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LIMPOPO

Lephale says he has not been able to study, mainly because his institution is yet to outline a plan for online learning and because of his living conditions.

“I share a house with 14 people. It is not conducive for me to study or catch up on my academics on any day. I have to wait to study at night when everybody in the family is asleep.”

Lephale says he has not been in contact with any of his lecturers since lockdown. However, some have tried to assist students by uploading learning material.

“The university has not announced any provisions for e-learning, let alone a comprehensive plan for the resumption of teaching and learning," he said.

As for the department of higher education & training’s plan to try to salvage the academic year, Lephale said: “I don’t think the department of higher education & training has a clear plan to salvage the 2020 academic year. All the presentations made by the minister are misguided and directionless."

Lephale, a student activist, says students shouldn’t be forced to deregister because of a lack of access to learning.

KIARA MAHARAJ, FIRST-YEAR BUSINESS SCIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN

For Maharaj lockdown has not affected her academic progress because her university has rolled out online learning fairly successfully and classroom pressure has been removed.

“It hasn’t made much of a difference to my academics because of the online lectures. However, there has been an increase in some marks because of the ability to understand concepts in your own time and the pressure of understanding work in class is lifted off your shoulders."

Maharaj has been able to access PDFs and narrated power presentations throughout the university’s online system and also has access to one-on-one interactions with tutors and lecturers when needed. Her biggest challenge has been managing the workload.

“Often at home there are a few distractions, but with dedication and commitment these distractions become irrelevant. Another challenge is keeping track of the many tasks that need to be completed. It’s hard to find the time to do so, especially if one doesn’t fully understand the module. The fast pace at which work is thrown at us is often overwhelming and it becomes discouraging. Also, the interaction and learning is not the same as a face-to-face interaction, ” she says.

FRANCIS MORAN, FIRST-YEAR MEDICINE AT STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY

Moran has been itching to get his hands on a scalpel. For him, the lack of practical work has been the hardest part of lockdown.

“I have been struggling to learn anatomy, which we do in first year, without the dissection practical. The other challenge has been group work, because I think the medical curriculum at Stellenbosch puts a lot of emphasis on group work."

E-learning at his university started nearly a month ago and he has been able to get almost the same amount of engagement with his lecturers as he would have if he was on campus. Moran says studying A-levels, a UK curriculum, at school prepared him for the individual learning required.

“Throughout high school I studied a lot and did a lot of work at home because I was doing A levels. I had to work outside school to keep up with the magnitude of content.

“One of the disadvantages of online learning is that you are not surrounded by people who are studying your course, so you can’t really engage with each other about the work,” he says.

Michaela Scholtz.
ROLLERCOASTER RIDE Michaela Scholtz.
Image: Supplied

MICHAELA SCHOLTZ. FIRST-YEAR BA IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, ENGLISH AND POLITICAL SCIENCE AT WITS UNIVERSITY

E-learning has been a rollercoaster experience for Scholtz, who says some days are better than others.

“Some weeks I feel as if I’m on top of my work and other days I’m a week or so behind. It’s different in different subjects. On an average day I’m able to work five hours a day. On a good day I’m able to work six.

” I'm lucky that I don’t have as many challenges as other students because of my degree. A BA degree is mostly a reading and writing degree. So I have most of my textbooks and I’m able to keep going without having to rely on too many online sources.”

Scholtz says one of the challenges has been the lack of face-to-face interaction, though she is able to communicate with her lecturers regularly.

Nondumiso Chamane.
BATTLING Nondumiso Chamane.
Image: Supplied

NONDUMISO CHAMANE, THIRD-YEAR B.COM ACCOUNTING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF THE FREE STATE

Chamane has been struggling to adapt to e-learning, but is confident she will get used to it.

“The beginning is never easy, so at the moment I am struggling, but I feel as if it’s because it is the beginning and I’m just getting used to the style of learning.‚

Chamane receives weekly online study packs from her institution, but says accessing the data provided is sometimes difficult.

“One of the challenges I face is data. Though the university gave us 10 gigs a month, learning how to navigate the app we use to access it has been hard and sometimes the app has issues.

“Studying at home is also tricky at times. I am able to study and get work done at home, but I don’t feel it is as much as I would have if I still had contact learning. There are a lot of distractions at home and I feel as if the environment isn’t student-friendly, compared with being able to go to a classroom or a library,” she says.

Billy Mthombeni.
DIFFICULT Billy Mthombeni.
Image: Supplied

BILLY MTHOMBENI THIRD-YEAR B.COM ACCOUNTING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VENDA

Mthombeni says e-learning has partially been ruled out, but not completely, as is the case at most previously disadvantaged institutions.

“The University of Venda has partially rolled out the online learning programme, meaning it is not yet at the level we anticipated.”

He says though they are receiving notes via various platform, they had very little communication with lecturers.

“Lecturers send notes and tutorials via blackboard e-mails and WhatsApp. Students are being assessed with tests and assignments, which I submit via e-mails, WhatsApp and blackboard.

“Most lecturers haven’t communicated, some only send study slides, without proper instructions on what we are supposed to do.”

Mthombeni says connectivity and access to the internet is also an issue for him as he does not have a laptop.

Owami Mbhense.
IN LIMBO Owami Mbhense.
Image: Supplied

OWAMI MBHENSE, SECOND-YEAR HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGEMENT AT DURBAN UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY

Mbense says there has been no clear communication as to when they are going to start online learning.

“We haven’t started yet. It’s something that they’ve been talking about and they keep sending out communiques to say they are still making plans."

Mbhense says students have been sent notes they already have and haven’t received new material since lockdown began.

She is concerned about her academic progress because she did not bring any of her study materials home and says the only communication students have had with lecturers is to inform them that assignment due dates have been moved.

Noluthando Nene.
ALL GOOD Noluthando Nene.
Image: Supplied

NOLUTHANDO NENE, THIRD-YEAR CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS AT VARSITY COLLEGE

If Nene does not access the institution’s online learning site often enough she receives a call from the college asking her why and if she needs any assistance.

“They communicate with us fairly often and if you don’t have data they assist."

Nene has a timetable to inform her of when material is available online. All assignments and tests are due at the end of August.

The only challenge she faces is distractions at home and trying to maintain focus.

LONDIWE DUBE, HONOURS STUDENT BA IN CULTURE AND HERITAGE TOURISM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL

The uncertainty of how online learning would work led Dube to consider deregistering from the 2020 academic year.

“I was thinking of deregistering because home is not a place that’s conducive to studying. That’s why I opted for res, where I have a quiet place to study and access to wifi.”

Last week, the university rolled out online learning at full capacity, sending data to students. They have also started Zoom lectures.

“[My parents] advised me to choose online learning. I will have to relocate to my aunt’s house, because she lives alone, so I should be able to study and focus on my work, ” she said.