The communications industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), has temporarily freed-up spectrum to allow mobile networks to increase capacity and drive down data costs during the lockdown. One of the conditions was to “ensure that they support and create virtual teaching and classrooms as determined by the Department of Basic Education”.
But it’s not as simple as that.
We asked a public high school west of Johannesburg how their teachers and students have been coping with distance learning during the first month of lockdown.
“Teachers are in constant contact with learners digitally,” says Lauren Jooste-Coetsee, marketing director at Krugersdorp High School. “There are so many different platforms that are being utilised. We’ve recently rolled out Microsoft 365 with Microsoft Teams, which was made available to the school to use for distance learning.”
Thanks to high data prices, however, not all students can access data-intensive platforms like Microsoft Teams, so teachers have become creative to ensure students have an inclusive learning experience.
Says Jooste-Coetsee: “We’ve got teachers who have made WhatsApp groups, created Instagram accounts, and there’s a design teacher who has created a website that the learners can go to for accessing learning material. We’re trying to give as many options out there for the learners to access their work material remotely.”
Due to the cost of data and how networks have segmented how South Africans use their networks, there is a natural skew towards WhatsApp being used.
For example, Vodacom users pay R99 for 1GB of data, while they pay R35 for the same 1GB to use exclusively on WhatsApp. This creates a tendency for teachers and learners to purchase WhatsApp data to maximise their 1GB, but forgoes the opportunity to access other apps if they don’t have standard data. Similar bundles exist across the network operators, and across other apps like Instagram.
This segmentation between platforms will become problematic when regulators need to decide which platforms need to be zero-rated for education, says World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck, who has conducted extensive research on the impact of bundle pricing.
“The agreements that the operators reached with the Competition Commission was to zero-rate a wide range of educational content,” says Goldstuck. “The difficulty comes in schools using commercial platforms, as opposed to the academic sites that are zero-rated.
“The operators won’t zero-rate video-conferencing platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts. However, there is an argument to be made for them to zero-rate Google Classroom. If Microsoft were able to carve out an environment where Teams is used only by universities and schools, again an argument could be made for zero-rating that environment. As a platform in general, there is no chance that it will be zero-rated.”
Teachers have reimagined how they use these platforms to ensure that every learner has access, says Jooste-Coetsee. “The new term kicked off exactly on time. That was thanks to existing structures for communication that teachers had in place for digital learning before the lockdown.
“In English, for example, teachers are reading stories through voice recordings. They’ll read the story, explain the parts of the story, and then they upload it to a WhatsApp group where the learners can access it. Learners can also find out about the work they need to cover in the same group, because teachers can send documents via WhatsApp, and questions can be asked in the group.
“For a visual approach, an English teacher who uses Instagram posts material in picture format. The material includes: ‘This is what you need to cover for today’, ‘Shakespearean word for the day’, and that sort of content.
“The teachers selected the platforms that work for their students. Some found that Microsoft Teams has worked well for them. Others have said YouTube works well for them.”
Jooste-Coetsee says that constant contact with learners is maintained whether they have data or not.
“To both learners and parents, there is constant emailing taking place, communications are done from inside the communicator tool, as well as SMSes being sent by the school in case there are those who don’t have access to a data connection for whatever reason, whether it be signal issues or cost. We’re trying to cover as many bases as possible to remain connected”.
Keeping in contact is ideal in these times, but maintaining multiple lines of communication can be costly to schools.
“What we need urgently is a clear national register of educational sites and services that must be zero-rated,” says Goldstuck. “That will also allow schools to be able to consult a list of these sites and services that all the students would be able to access.
“The problem with the existing setup is that the likes of Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom will each indicate which sites and services they will zero-rate for their customers. That creates a massive complexity for schools to work out which of the sites and services will be accessible to all these students.”
The result is that there cannot at present be a common, standard platform for all teachers and learners.