The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how access to cheap and reliable data is a vital utility - without it, students fear they will be left behind.
Forced to adjust to e-learning with unreliable internet connections, insufficient data and a lack of access to laptops and routers, students at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape are battling to manage with the effects of the pandemic.
Founded in 1916, the university is renowned for producing political leaders and intellectuals including Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Govan Mbeki. But Covid-19 has exacerbated endemic problems at the Alice campus, which has long been ground zero for a series of disruptions.
Ayanda Fiko, 22, who recently returned to campus, said students were protesting against financial segregation and issues relating to safety within the institution a week before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the lockdown in March.
"The coronavirus caused immense disruption in our lives. A few days after the announcement, we had to 'vacate' the residences and that is something we never anticipated," said the soft-spoken postgraduate student. "In fact, we didn't even have enough time to prepare for first-term exams. We are still waiting for the laptops and modems the university promised us. Most of the time I was at home I could not operate online or afford to buy extra data."
Gradual return to campus
Under level three lockdown, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande declared that national student financial aid scheme (NSFAS) grant holders would receive 10 gigs of daytime and 20 gigs of night time data a month for three months from the beginning of June. But few students received the promised data on time.
Nzimande also recently announced that 66% of the student population would be allowed to return to campuses to continue the academic year. Two weeks ago, during level 3 of lockdown, only 33% of students had returned to their residences.
As students slowly resume campus-based research, many fear they will not complete the 2020 year. These include final-year students and postgraduates who require laboratories, technical equipment and clinical training as part of their studies.
Sinethemba Landzela, 26, from Centane village, a rural part of the former Transkei, is a final-year education student. "I've been stuck at home for almost two months without any data," he said. "Even though it was eventually loaded on 10 July, I continued to suffer with network signals. The data they are loading to us only lasts for about three weeks and when it is finished we are forced to buy it ourselves."
The university's director of institutional advancement, Tandi Mapukata, told New Frame that though poor "network and electricity" connectivity prevents some students from participating fully in the university's online teaching and learning programmes, some departments have managed to get the full complement of registered students to participate in remote classes. "Despite the challenges, our academics are trying out a range of blended teaching and learning modalities. These include online platforms such as Blackboard [and] WhatsApp. Those [who] can also ... schedule virtual classes through ... meetings platforms."
A junior lecturer who wanted to remain anonymous said he noticed that some of the students who attend online classes "lacked basic computer skills", which hinders their learning. He said some face adjustment problems in their new environment and many are not proficient in English. "One of the difficulties we have to deal with while teaching first-year students, particularly those who come from remote areas in this province, is that they struggle ... to operate computer programs, but we do support them," he said, adding that those from poorly connected localities suffer the most.
Students complain that home learning is stressful and confusing, saying the workload is larger than when they are in regular classes. As a result, they worry about how they will catch up and fear the wave of depression and anxiety sweeping through the struggling student body.
While shortages at Durban's port meant the distribution of laptops and modems was delayed, Mapukata has tried to keep students connected. "Since June, we have been loading data to approximately 90% of our student population. Those who are still unable to access the data are being assisted by our information and communication technology department to register their data/mobile numbers on the university system. A few - 33% - are back on campus and are able to take advantage of the university wifi, in addition to monthly data allocation."
Sinoxolo Skamen, 23, a postgraduate student, is concerned about her future. "The work environment at home is awkward. It's very difficult to concentrate there because of family responsibilities, which are very demanding," Skamen said. "Though we have the wifi connection on campus, we face another obstacle. If we connect at the same time during classes, the network slows down. When you try to reconnect, you realise that the lecturer has moved on, then you are left behind." This "new normal", she said, is a huge problem.
The interim student representative council president, Siphiwo Ngcenge, suggested the entire student body at Fort Hare was in crisis. "In most cases, the environment in which students find themselves at home - where a family of about 15 people share a small house - is a hostile one," he said. "Those who are using Telkom, for instance, are at a disadvantage because this service provider is not easily accessible in isolated places. ... The reality of the matter is that this e-learning has brought a huge frustration to students."
On 19 August, Ngcenge posted a WhatsApp message: "At last, student's laptops have arrived. Leading under this pandemic, I never thought kungaze kubenje [things could turn out like this]." Most students are yet to receive them.