The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic worldwide has led to the closing down of schools and higher institutions of learning across the globe. The disruption of academic activities in South Africa has led to the use of technology, where learning and assessment is online. Online teaching has been in existence over time in almost all institutions of higher learning in South Africa. However, most of these institutions fail to utilize their full potential, preferring face-to-face type of teaching due to its own peculiar advantages. Online teaching is a type of teaching and learning system designed for students using electronic communication without physically attending a traditional university academic setting. Marking, correction of tests and assignments has been one of the most time-consuming activities for lecturers.
However, with the introduction of online teaching, student’s progress and assessment is well monitored within a short time. This type of teaching also saves teacher’s time and enables students to receive feedback almost immediately. Although online teaching and assessments has greatly reduced the physical interaction and exposure between teachers and students, there are avenues for digital contacts where students interact with their lecturers through messaging, video calls, discussion boards, forums discussions, webinars and zoom meetings. All these platforms made interaction with their lecturers and fellow students easier. While most of the students blended easily with the new developments which helps to fill the learning gap created by COVID-19 pandemic, others complained that they were not being carried along with the teaching and learning processes. There were also other set of students who could not afford to get a personal laptop and also lack access to data. They claimed online learning is for the rich and not for the poor and as such, should not be sustained. Even though almost all the institutions made provisions for free data for lecturers and students, there were connectivity issues which could not be easily resolved.
Challenges of Online teaching and learning
There are several challenges associated with online teaching and assessment of students in South Africa. Some of which are:
Lack of physical interaction between lecturers and the students
Interaction between lecturers and students during classes and after lectures has been the order of the day in most of the South African institutions before COVID-19. The students were free to consult their lecturers whenever they had any challenges. Some institutions had tutors assigned to courses to assist students, in addition to the lecturers teaching those courses. These tutors take the students through tutorial questions, supervise tests, practicals and attend to any other problems they have with their courses. All of these efforts are geared towards ensuring that all the students are able to participate in lectures and practical sessions with confidence. Having gotten used to classroom method, most of these students find it difficult to cope and adapt to the online teaching and assessment programme. This is because the level of interaction is not as flexible as it is in comparison to physical interaction.
Low computer skills
Information Technology is a major driver in our education sector today and it is also one of the basic knowledge students need to have. They need to be conversant in the use of computer to assist them in their studies. Some schools and institutions do not have enough facilities in terms of technology while a few are well equipped. Most of the South African institutions have enough computers in their library and local area networks (LANs) where students can easily access. The outbreak of this novel corona virus makes online teaching and learning compulsory and the only option available in many institutions for filling up the gap. However, some of the students have weak Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills and therefore find e-learning very difficult to cope with. However, some institutions have organized workshops for ICT training to enhance the technical capacities of students so they can be able to participate effectively.
Language, background and lack of resources
Language and race can be one of the factors affecting the effectiveness of online teaching and assessment programme. This is because most students have a poor understanding of English language and as such struggle to understand their lecturers communicating through English language only. There are instances where explanations have to be done using vernacular languages in a class for better understanding of the students, this may not be possible through online teaching. Another challenge is the background of some South African students. Most of the students come from very poor backgrounds and therefore struggle to pay their fees and meet up with other expenses as regards their studies. Some of them may not be able to afford a laptop when admitted into the university. They will have to rely on the computers provided by their institutions in the library and LAN for assignments and studying. Laptop should be one of the basic requirements for students in the university, and therefore students are expected to possess a laptop before coming into the university system. This may be difficult for students from very poor backgrounds. In order to forestall future ugly occurrences brought about by COVID-19 pandemic which necessitated the closure of schools in compliance with total lockdown, it has now become imperative for students to have a personal computer to work with at home. Those students who could not afford to get a laptop at this period are left behind. Although, some institutions assist students by providing laptops for them at moderate prices and allow them to pay by instalment, not all institutions could afford this.
Differing Social Contexts
The compulsory stay at home imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the country has confined most students to their homes. This has further compounded the online learning system due to series of house responsibilities ranging from farming, cooking, cleaning to mention but a few. All these responsibilities hinder their preparedness and connectivity with the e-learning system. In most cases, students are already tired after the house chores and lose concentrations during the course of the online lectures which ultimately make the e-learning process ineffective in such cases. Some houses are close to drinking joints or churches where the surrounding noise are high enough to cause distractions and interfere with the learning process. This is often complicated when students find themselves in overcrowded homes with little or no regard to personal privacy.
Lack of data and connectivity problem
Buying of data has been one of the challenges lecturers and students encountered during online teaching and assessment programme. Some of the Universities supplied free data to lecturers and students to enable them to connect online but not all benefitted from this. This may hinder the flow in the online teaching process. Another problem encountered by both students and lecturers are connectivity issues. There have been complains from students about difficulties encountered when connecting to online lectures. Although, some institutions tried all they could to assist all the students but there are still some who finds it difficult to connect due to weak network signals in their residential areas. The networks of some areas are very poor and fluctuating and this can hinder the online learning system. To overcome some of these challenges, efforts were made by some institutions to deliver some of the lecture notes both hard and soft copies (on a memory sticks) to the students. In all of these, the gap of explanation and demonstration (being an important part of lectures) is missing.
No provision for practicals and other courses
There are no provisions for science-based courses which involves practicals, public services and field work during online teaching and assessment. These hands-on sections are meant to aid the level of comprehension of the lectures delivered; even with alternative to practical been adopted, it is still not a better replacement for hands-on practical sections. Plans should be made on how to make up for the loss whenever academic activities resumed fully on campuses.
Loss of interest and motivation by students
At the early stages of online teaching and learning process, most students embrace it enthusiastically but along the line, they lose interest. This is due to slow pace of adaptability to the new (e-learning) way of teaching and lack of motivation they could have gotten in a face-to-face interaction. As a result of this, some students find it difficult to catch up with the pace of their lecturers, therefore may give up on the e-learning system. The lecturers should design methods to carry along all the students especially the upcoming learners and also make the teaching as interactive as possible. They must also design methods to motivate the students so that they will always look forward to the next lecture. Test should be conducted with adequate notices at intervals for easy assessment of the students and to discover those who are lagging behind. Despite the efforts of the lecturers and management of the schools, there are still some students who finds it difficult to concentrate on their own due to distractions at home and still need to return to campus before they can cope well.
To prepare for unforeseen circumstances such as COVID-19 pandemic which may hinder face-to-face interactions in the future, the government, university managements and students have a part to play.
Governments should introduce policies and strategies that will help to solve connectivity problems. The locations that have a poor/weak internet signals should be looked into and if possible, government should partner with network provider in order to improve the situation.
Government in partnership with network providers should assist in the reduction of the cost of data or if possible, give free data to some of the students who may not be able to afford.
Government can assist the less privileged students who lack financial resources to maintain online learning system.
Government can provide laptops at moderate prices to first year students as they gain admission into the university and allow them pay on instalments.
The university management should organize online transition and orientation programmes that will enable both staff and students get acquainted with the online teaching and learning processes.
They must also introduce multilingual digital learning platforms that will help the students to understand their courses better using different languages spoken in South Africa.
Regular ICT training seminar/workshop should be organized at no cost to the students and lecturers.
The university management should make the possession of personal laptops or computer one of the basic requirements a new student must meet before being allowed into the university. This can be achieved in partnership with the government through the provision of soft loans for those students who may not be able to afford a laptop.
Survey should be conducted by the institution to access the problems encountered by the lecturers and students during online teaching and assessment. Some of the questions the survey must answer includes access to Wi-Fi and internet, connectivity problems, how conducive is their homes for studying and how their environments can affect their online learning process. This will enable the school management to get appropriate measures that can be put in place in order to tackle future occurrences such as COVID-19 pandemic.
Students should get acquainted with the knowledge of ICT even before gaining admission into the university and must be willing to update their skills in partnership with school management in the organization of ICT seminars and workshops.
Students should develop e-learning skills in preference to face-to-face learning system in case of future challenges such as COVID-19 pandemic.
Students must cooperate with the university management in lecture delivery using online platforms even when situations are relatively normal.
In conclusion, COVID-19 pandemic has enlightened the higher educational sector on the need to strengthen e-learning mode of teaching in all universities to overcome the present and future challenges that may disrupt the face-to-face mode of teaching and learning. Moreover, efforts should be geared towards incorporating concerns of both lecturers and students in mitigating the challenges being experienced in improving online teaching and learning. It is a collaborative effort and all voices matter.
Dr Lizzy Oluwatoyin Ofusori is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban. She writes in her personal capacity.