Online Learning Is A Distant Dream For Most Of South Africa’s Youth – And It Is Still Our Only Hope

Jackie Carroll is the MD of Optimi Workplace and the co-founder of Media Works, South Africa’s leading provider of adult education and training. Phemelo Segoe is the Operations and Client Manager of Tuta-Me, which forms part of Optimi Workplace.

By Jackie Carroll and Phemelo Segoe

Collectively, we’re tired of discussing the impact of Covid. Yes, there was an impact. Yes, systemic issues in South Africa often made it worse.

But, tired or not, the impact is there. We’re feeling it still. And as research continues to reveal the extent to which Covid affected different aspects of our society, we can’t ignore the fact that we will likely carry the consequences of the pandemic for years to come.

Its effect on our education sector is a prime example.

What the numbers say

Statistics South Africa recently released a report on the barriers Covid created to educational participation in South Africa in 2020. For the first time, we’re able to put facts and figures to the toll the pandemic took on our learners. The picture is bleak. Households simply didn’t have the resources in place to make remote learning a reality when lockdown struck.

In 2020, less than 7% of households that were home to people between the ages of 15 and 24, the report says, had access to the internet at home. Some 67% of the population were able to access the internet through their mobile phones, but they were constrained by the prohibitively high cost of data, and varying degrees of quality in signal strength. Power cuts and load shedding, which regularly knock out cell phone towers, often made things worse.

There were discrepancies at schools as well. Only 12% of people between 5 and 24 were offered the option of remote learning by their schools. And at the end of the day, not even 6% participated in remote learning.

Then there’s the racial divide. Among households who had access to the internet at home, 50% were white-headed households, while 4% were black African-headed households. And white learners were three times more likely to participate in remote learners than their black counterparts. Almost 91% of black learners attended schools that did not offer the option of remote learning at all.

Online learning, in other words, was a luxury. Those who were able to pass in 2020, and pass well, were able to do so by virtue of their privilege.

Inching our way towards a solution

Two years later, while we are more aware that we need to improve access to education among our youth, developments in this space remain sluggish. Things just aren’t progressing fast enough. If we were to run the numbers now, any improvements would likely be marginal.

In our line of work as education and training providers, we’ve noticed that university students are faring better than primary and high school learners because universities, by and large, are better funded and resourced. And yet, even then, students who never had the opportunity to learn essential computer skills at school, or who don’t have easy access to computers now because they don’t live on campus, are likely to fall behind.

As we try to seek out solutions, we’ve learnt that educational content has to be available offline. Children and adults need to be able to learn without consistent access to the internet, either because the content is downloadable, or because the platforms they use are zero-rated or reverse-billed.

Secondly, blended learning is here to stay. Adult learners and their employers will likely never go back exclusively to in-person training. While the support of facilitators remains critical, independent study has become the norm. Schools and education and training providers need to take this need on board as they design and implement their programmes.

We need to acknowledge, in other words, that…

Online learning is still the way to go

The real impact of Covid on South Africa’s youth is likely only to be felt in the years to come. Years from now, we may observe subpar discipline knowledge, a widening skills gaps, and a greater need for adult education, and be able to attribute this to the pandemic – to the time when we failed our youth.

But all is not lost. There is still hope. Online learning is still the way to go. It is still our best chance at improving the status quo. And every effort we are putting into making this happen – we, as government, the private sector and civil society – will ultimately help to provide our youth with the quality of education they so richly deserve.

We need to keep pushing to create both systemic and education-specific change. The road is set. All we need to do is travel it. It’s time to get out of first gear.

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