In early March 2020, the president put the entire country under hard lockdown. This resulted in limited movement and interaction of people outside the home environment. The lockdown disrupted academic calendars and activities of institutions of higher learning in the country, especially for rural-based universities. The decision to close institutions of higher learning was an attempt by the government to curb the spread of the virus and mortality in the country as it was done by other countries across the world.
Despite these continued COVID-19 disruptions and restrictions to normal lives and academic operations, we had to find ways to continue teaching and learning activities to complete the 2020 academic calendar. When this happened I was on the verge of completing my Master of Arts degree by research and I had just been allocated some groups of students to tutor. You can imagine the frustration and confusion. Tutoring has always been done face to face in most universities, especially full-time universities. So, it has never been a challenge to walk into a lecture theatre and present a tutorial on any selected topic. If anything, it has always been quite an enjoyable process. It is a relaxing two hours outside the library while one is still engaged with academic activities.
However, with the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, I had to go home, my students had to go home, and we had to learn how to teach and learn online. Most of these students, like me, are from the deep rural spaces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. We share similar experiences of signal difficulties when trying to connect to the internet. I personally often have to travel some 20-25km away from my village almost into the town of Tzaneen just to read my email – that’s how bad it gets. However, because the University was making provisions for data as a means of facilitating an eased remote teaching and learning process, it was assumed that we will all connect to various ICT platforms to stay academically engaged. Of course, that was not the reality.
The miscalculation in this equation was that, even though my students had access to enough data, just like me, we did not have the network to connect via any of the online platforms. So it was a struggle. The reality is that being on campus bridges the gap between the have and the have nots because we have similar access to facilities and other resources. However, being home, especially during the lockdown in 2020, proved that there remains a huge gap between us as a society. The inability to connect with my students easily proved that South Africa remains a divided society and that rural spaces are exactly that – rural spaces. This proved ICT inequalities between the urban and the rural spaces, an injustice I deeply feel must be addressed.
My frustrations were not only with my inability to connect with my students but the fact that I also could not swiftly carry on with my research for the same reasons – network. Although I did talk to my research supervisor from time to time on the phone, it was difficult for me to achieve anything tangible because I could not access my chapter corrections in time, nor some of the material he would share with me to enrich my arguments.
Rural universities have a long way to go in their ICT learning integrations. And from what I have observed during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the problem cannot be solved by the Department of Higher Education only. The solutions require a collective approach by the Department of Science and Innovation in collaboration with relevant researchers on Information Communication Technology on rural communities and other key stakeholders.