There are two categories of learning namely, Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning. Most physical, brick-and-mortar classrooms are strictly ‘synchronous’ whereas an autonomous learning atmosphere where students learned ‘independently’ of one another particularly the same content is precisely ‘asynchronous’.
Remote learning is a type of Synchronous Learning and should not be confused with ‘eLearning or ‘Distance Learning’. It’s not just eLearning, however, it uses eLearning as its innermost approach. It’s also not ‘Distance Learning’ although it happens at a ‘distance,’ distance learning is characterized by ‘distance’ while ‘remote learning’ means normally close teaching and learning which now takes place away from each other. Remote Learning simply makes use of eLearning tools to put Distance Learning into action for students who, for whatsoever cause, are unable to be in the regular classroom, the students may use a virtual classroom which replicates the regular classroom as closely as possible via eLearning tools and platforms, in other words, remote learning is ‘a temporary way for a classroom to stay together and continue learning while physically apart’.
Remote learning is the practice of moving a previously in-person education progression online which is usually temporary, although a particular description for ‘remote learning’ and ‘learning through play does not exist, the inspiration is usually the same which is a provisional shift from face-to-face lessons in a physical classroom to a digital space normally accessed ‘remotely.’
On one side the Teachers restructure lessons to conform with online teaching modes as well as building up novel learning resources that are specifically tailored towards learning online while on the other side the students will be utilizing new tools to learn practically the same things.
In recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic placed much emphasis on remote education as a result of school shutdowns internationally. This made schools have limited time to transfer their existing teaching and learning procedures as well as the curriculum, assessment, and instruction into an eLearning environment.
When schools however are mandated to shift the class online for an extensive period, challenges arise that need to be mitigated. Remote Teaching is commenced by teachers restructuring a whole year’s curriculum into one or more online spaces using unfamiliar tools to make the learning resources available and accessible to each student in the remote classroom.
Numerous challenges are facing remote learning in South Africa’s Higher Education Sector, among them are the following;
Virtual Classroom Inadequacies
Virtual classrooms are normally used to replicate the regular face-to-face classrooms as closely as possible through the use of eLearning tools and platforms. Nevertheless, the virtual classroom still has so many inadequacies which make it difficult for it to be exactly like the traditional face-to-face classroom. First of all the teacher cannot effectively visualize the class reaction in terms of assimilation of what is being taught, various real-time facial expressions and body language which would have been observed directly in the face-to-face classroom cannot be fully captured in the virtual classroom. Secondly, class participation, concentration, and coordination by each student cannot be ascertained in the virtual classroom since any student could decide not to be involved in an ongoing teaching session. Even when the students are part of a current teaching session as it were, they could at the same time multi-task by doing various other assignments and tasks which might not at all be related to the teaching going on at that particular time. Thirdly the virtual classroom does not give room for direct social interactions between the students neither does it foster collaborative learning among the students as well. Fourthly there is no guarantee that every student willing to be part of the virtual classroom and started the class with his or her colleagues will remain part of the virtual classroom till the end as a result of internet service interruptions which could occur at any time depending on the location of each student.
Curriculum and Learning resources Integration
One of the challenges faced by remote learning is that of Curriculum and Learning resources Integration into an eLearning environment. This concerns the Teachers and Instructors. This normally occurs when schools are shifting from normal classrooms to online spaces for a long time, Remote Teaching is commenced by teachers restructuring a whole year’s curriculum into one or more online spaces using unfamiliar tools to make the learning resources available and accessible to each student in the virtual classroom. This is a very tedious task to be carried out by the instructors firstly because of the time constraint to actualize the restructuring as well as to transfer the resources required by the students online and secondly because the teachers will be dealing with unfamiliar interface and tools, many efforts will be needed to make the learning resources available.
One major challenge that could affect both teachers and students is the connecting devices needed to work with. The teachers need these devices to work effectively and efficiently in making the learning resources available for the students. While the teachers may not be so much affected by this since most institutions provide these devices for them and where not provided the teachers are well off enough to get them personally, the students on the other hand are not provided for by the institutions, they have to depend most of the time on their parents or guardians for such provisions which might not be forthcoming especially among parents or guardians who are among the low-income earners. In some cases, the students might be distracted because they have to engage in certain tasks or jobs to get stipends which would be accumulated to get such devices needed for their learning. This type of distraction could affect the academic performances of such students in the long run.
Internet and Data Access
The effective delivery of remote learning is highly dependent on the availability of Internet service. While this is not so much of a problem for teachers and students within the vicinity of the institutions since the institutions will normally make such provisions available, those who reside far away might face this challenge except of course if they have to foot such bills personally. Apart from the ability of those who reside far away from the institutions to bear the cost of data and internet service, they also have to contend with another challenge of the availability of internet services in remote locations, especially among the low-income earners.
It is one thing to have Internet service available to the teachers and students for remote learning purposes, another issue worth considering is the quality of the Internet service which brings about the challenge of service interruptions. Service interruptions are not likely to be so frequent if at all within the institutions and in the urban and more densely populated areas, this is because the telecommunication companies will give more priority to such areas because there will be more profit for their business to cater for their overhead costs. On the other hand, the rural or less populated area may experience more frequent interruptions, this due to the partial coverage of such areas by the communication companies as a result of trying to make sure there is a net profit no matter how little after the overhead costs have been taken care of. Internet service interruptions could also occur due to more priority being given to uplink-downlink and related problems in the urban or densely populated areas at the expense of the rural or sparsely populated areas.
Adaptability to Learning Tools and Interface
Another challenge both Teachers and Students face is the ability to use the Interface and tools effectively to their advantage. The fact is that the teachers will be user interfaces and tools that are strange to them, they will certainly need quite some time to get familiar with these interfaces and tools to make the learning resources available in the virtual classroom. On the other hand, the students will also be dealing with an unfamiliar interface as well as tools with which they can harness the vast resources the teachers have made available. All these require both time and effort on the part of the students as well as the teachers.
The above challenges of Remote Learning in South Africa’s Higher Education Sector are not exhaustive, however, they highlight the most important ones. As much as one cannot undermine the importance of the connecting devices, internet availability as well as internet service interruptions, one is at the same time unable to push to the background the inadequacies of the virtual classroom, the integration of curriculum and learning resources in addition to the adaptability to the interface and learning tools.
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 capacity.