Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update

ABSA-donated laptops relieve Unizulu students from learning in difficult conditions

Imagine living in an area where, to access email, you had to walk to an only spot outside your village that is known to receive a cellphone signal. Imagine if, once there, you had to wait your turn to access a shared smartphone to get to read a notification from your university.

This is the reality of hundreds of students living in rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal. It also reflects the conditions under which students have had to access remote teaching since their institutions shut down on 20 March, after the first cases of corona virus were identified in South Africa. Information and Communication Technology Director at the University of Zululand (Unizulu), Mr Lucas Manci, says this is what "ninety percent of our students" from areas such as Ulundi, Nongoma and Hluhluwe are having to contend with. He says many students at Unizulu do not have a mobile phone, let alone a smartphone and access to data. "It is not uncommon for 600 students sharing a battery charging spot to wait in a common area, together, to receive a message from the University."

Unizulu's uptake of remote teaching and learning was slow

Following an agreement by all public universities to resume teaching and learning remotely from 20 April, some institutions, including Unizulu, got off to a slow start. First, the University had to equip its academics in online teaching methods. This took a series of workshops for academics facilitated by the Henley Business College during May, and another with the University of the Free State's Centre for Teaching and Learning to enable administrative staff to support the academics in their delivery of the multimodal teaching approach.

It was not until June that Unizulu was ready to roll out multi-modal teaching and learning in earnest. Professor Nontokozo Mashiya, Director in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor and now Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, says students who did not have laptops resorted to using their smartphones to access the learning material through Moodle, the University's learning management system. She admits that in the beginning, very few students engaged online. However, over time, the University began to see a rise in the numbers accessing Moodle and now, overall, teaching and learning is proceeding well.

ABSA sponsors R1m worth of laptops

In a survey that was carried out in the early days to determine the extent of need for learning devices, the entire student body of +/- 17,000 declared themselves in need of a laptop. When Unizulu purchased a total of 15,000 laptops, specifically for the students sponsored by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the institution faced a shortfall of +/-2000.

Unizulu was therefore grateful to learn through Universities South Africa (USAf), in August, that ABSA had granted it R1million towards additional students' laptops. This grant went on to cover 200 more devices, which would be targeted at unsponsored students across all faculties.

Ms Zanele Precious Biyela (right), currently in her third year of a Bachelor of Commerce in Economics and Business Management studies, was one of the 200 students. She says when Unizulu switched to remote teaching she used her cellphone to access prepared notes and assignments via the university's website. She says she found the change to remote learning nerve-wrecking and frustrating.

"Using a cellphone for schoolwork is horrible," she says before explaining that "reading documents on the small screen does not work as well as doing it on a computer or laptop." She says she found the change to remote learning also extremely costly because of initial data purchases. Remote learning was also exhausting because there was a lot of pressure to perform as well as before, notwithstanding the changes imposed by the pandemic.

In November, lady luck showed up for Biyela when she received her ABSA-donated laptop. Now, doing her assignments has become much easier. Typing from a laptop keyboard is a lot faster and easier. Now into the second semester of her final year, Biyela is confident that if all continues to go well with her modules, she should graduate in 2021.

Ms Zanele Biyela
Mr Fundakubo Buthelezi

Mr Fundakubo Buthelezi (left), a Master's student in Development Studies, says receiving the laptop has made a lot of difference in his life.

Speaking from the remote area of KwesakaMthethwa in Empangeni, Buthelezi narrates how burdensome his study life was, before he received the device. To conduct research he had to visit an internet cafe in the town of Empangeni. This required him to wake up early to catch the first (04:00 am) shuttle to town. Although he had an option of catching the 08:00 alternative, the trip took about an hour and a half. He preferred to wait in town for services to open rather than find the internet café bursting at the seams with patrons by mid-morning.

When he could not visit the internet café, Buthelezi relied on a fellow student for general updates. That is how he found out about the beginning of remote teaching in June. He says his academic life has been far more organised since receiving the laptop. He is astounded that ABSA could care so much as to extend this type of gesture to students. He says he can never thank the corporate enough.

Ms Zinhle Shabalala (right), who hails from Newcastle, is completing her Honours Degree in Public Administration. In April, one of her lecturers formed a WhatsApp group chat platform via which he would share notes and discuss modules via video and audio recordings. Shabalala accessed these notes through her cell phone and could access other work through the institutions' website. Students were also expected to submit their assignments and course work via the 'Turn-It-In' online platform.

Shabalala says while she participated in learning through WhatsApp chats for the most part of her final year, for assignments she had to borrow a friend's laptop - something she could not avoid because she could not submit assignments from a cell phone. Despite borrowing a friend's laptop from time to time, some of her work fell behind as she could only borrow up to a point. Shabalala's study challenges were lessened when she was invited back to campus on 18 September, after lockdown rules had been relaxed. Once back in residence she could use the University's computer labs to catch up on missed work. "I was honestly happy to be back on campus. This meant I could use the facilities and submit my assignments at my own pace", she recalls.

Ms Zinhle Shabalala

Since receiving her own ABSA-sponsored device, things have improved even further. "I also get to cover many modules in one day and now I can cross-night without worrying about having to give the laptop back to the owner." In the past, she would have had to give the device back, regardless of whether she had completed her assignments or not, because the owner would have needed the device for her own studies.

Mr Sandile Mlambo

Mr Sandile Mlambo (left) a first-year Masters of Economics student from Mtubatuba, is currently working on a research proposal. When the University shut down in March, Mlambo had just started his programme away from campus. He neither had a laptop nor access to such a device. He also had too poor internet connectivity to do any work online. He found out through the mass media that the University would resort to remote teaching and learning around June.

Mlambo was fortunate in that at Masters he did not need to attend classes. He only needed to consult with his supervisor via weekly cell phone calls and WhatsApp messages. Without a laptop, he scribbled notes in a book and referred to them during telephonic discussions with his supervisor. He says he found this process demanding and time consuming.

Since he got his own laptop on 6 November, he is able to type out his thoughts and email them through to his supervisor, at any time. "This is very convenient. It has helped the research consultation process to advance and go much more smoothly."

For Mr Qinisani Majola (right), in his first year of a Bachelor of Administration degree, receiving his own laptop meant he could no longer trouble the friend whose device he previously borrowed.

Though privileged enough to have a smartphone which he could use to access some of the learning material online, and though blessed with a home environment that allowed him to study, not having a laptop was a barrier to stress-free studying.

Since online learning began, Majola, from Gobandlovu Reserve in eSikhawini, has relied on WhatsApp groups where he and fellow students regularly share information and assist one another with various modules. Another platform that they use, and which he has found to be helpful, is Moodle. They use the learning management system to access the learning material, submit assignments and write tests. For the submission of assignments and writing tests he survived by borrowing a friend's laptop. He therefore had no choice but to work around his friend's study schedule.

Mr Qinisani Majola

In hindsight, he realises that he was not giving his assignments enough attention. He strove to submit them at least a week before their due dates to avoid inconveniencing his friend. Majola received his laptop in November. He says since then he focusses a lot better on his studies. Acquiring his own device has also enabled him flexibility in time management.

Of ABSA's generosity, Majola says it means a lot to economically disadvantaged students like himself. He says he also finds it commendable that organisations still exist, which still find time to address students' challenges the way USAf has done.

Extent of benefit at Unizulu

The five students interviewed above are among the 49 who have collected the ABSA-sponsored laptops from Unizulu's Student Financial Aid Office, since an invitation was issued to them to do so. Once Unizulu was informed of this benefit and after the laptops were procured, the Student Financial Aid Office identified the 200 beneficiaries among self-funded students and sent each of them an SMS to come in to collect their device, in person.

According to Unizulu's Director: Finance, Mr Khabiso Madlala, delivering the devices by courier to the home localities of students was not an option. "The University topped up the price of each unit by R950. There was no budget to carry courier costs. Secondly, most of the would-be recipients live where there is no physical address. Thirdly, for our own accounting purposes, each student had to sign receipt of their own device, on campus."

students are required to collect their device, in person
students are required to collect their device, in person
students are required to collect their device, in person
For accounting purposes, the benefitting students are required to collect their device, in person, and acknowledge receipt of it in writing. As at 11 December, 49 of the 200 had collected their laptops.

Asked why only a quarter had collected their devices when the academic year was still in progress and the need seemed to be so high, Madlala said he did not have answers to this question. He nonetheless pointed out that not all of the identified beneficiaries were back on campus. "Those not invited back need to obtain permits to come to the university, and travel costs are a real issue for some of the less privileged students."

The ICT Director concurred. He said some students had requested the University to allow one of their peers coming to campus to collect the laptops of up to 10 of them, who lived in a common area. Needless to say, that could not be allowed.

According to Acting DVC Academic, Professor Nontokozo Mashiya, only about 4000 (23,5%) of the entire student population were invited back to campus in September. "These were drawn from all four faculties. The criteria of selection included students who were proven unable to study from home for various reasons; those who needed to do their practicals on campus and those who needed to work on special software only accessible on campus, for example, students enrolled in computer literacy. The rest were students in accounting, mathematics and science programmes." Even those invited back did not all return.

Meanwhile, students are now fully immersed in their second-semester studies set to continue until March, 2021.

Unizulu staff did all in their power to enable remote teaching

Professor Mashiya says remote teaching and learning thrived - thanks to the extra mile that Unizulu went to accommodate the students residing in areas without electricity and internet connectivity. "First, Professor Maria Mabusela, Director: Teaching and Learning, working hand-in-hand with the Faculty Deans and faculty staff, went all-out and printed volumes of study material for our students. Our academics volunteered to deliver this material in their own cars to places nearby. Others used university-hired cars to the home localities of our students here, in KZN, in parts of the Eastern Cape, all the way to places in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. And they did so voluntarily without expecting compensation.

"Subsequently, we converted all our paper-based teaching and learning material to electronic, interactive material. All our second semester study materials are now online."

The Director: ICT adds that the electronic material was stored on memory sticks, which the academics again delivered to the students. "We also created a zero-rated portal and repository of our learning material and integrated it with the online learning system. Students do not need data to access that portal. They also do not need data to upload their assignments onto the portal."

How would students keep their laptop batteries charged, in areas without electricity? "Some rely on the nearby shops which have installed battery-run charging poles to power various electronic devices. This is a free service provided by mobile service providers in specific localities as part of their social responsibility. The students just have to show up there in time to beat inevitably long queues, because everybody in the immediate surrounds relies on the same, limited service."

Professor Mashiya says by September, a lot more students were engaging with remote learning than in June. "Those who were not performing well were given a second chance and invited back on campus. Performance picked up. In fact, we've seen slight improvement in students' performance now, when compared to previous normal times."

Unizulu's second semester started on 26 October. Whereas some now access their study material from campus, others continue from their respective homes. The second semester is expected to end on 21 March, 2021. This means the donated laptops will go a long way. Notwithstanding the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, the Acting DVC: Academic is satisfied that Unizulu has managed to salvage this academic year.

Turning to ABSA and the contribution they have made to enabling learning in this unprecedented period, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Xoliswa Mtose (right) says "the University of Zululand wishes to express sincere gratitude to ABSA for the generosity they have shown. Their donation made a remarkable difference in the lives of many students. The statements by students bear testimony that this kind gesture came at the right time and has enabled most of them to engage meaningfully with their studies during this challenging time."

In total, ABSA donated R6 million to the public university sector through Universities South Africa (USAf), to assist vulnerable students most affected by CoVID-19. Apart from Unizulu, other universities benefitting from the ABSA contribution are: the Vaal University of Technology; the University of KwaZulu-Natal; the University of the Western Cape; the University of Limpopo; the University of Venda as well as the University of the Free State. All of the receiving institutions were sponsored for 200 devices each, except the University of Limpopo and the University of Venda, for each of whom the sponsorship covered 100 devices.

Professor Xoliswa Mtose

Absa's contribution was a response to USAf's ongoing fundraising to assist students in distress with tuition fees, on the one hand, and with appropriate devices to help them navigate the remote teaching and learning terrain, on the other. Additional fundraising is seeking to support much-needed capacity building in academics. Dr Linda Meyer, USAf's Director: Operations and Sector Support, is leading this fundraising drive.

The writers, Khutso Moleko and Nqobile Tembe, are communication consultants contracted by Universities South Africa.


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