Online learning for the win: let’s keep policy in line with technology

There is no turning back. The COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown has accelerated the trend towards blended and online-only education.
Online learning for the win: let’s keep policy in line with technology

There is no turning back. The COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown has accelerated the trend towards blended and online-only education. The education community and government are now at a crossroads: we can either accept that education is irrevocably entwined with the fast-changing world of technology and adjust policies accordingly. Or we can remain in the policy paradigm of traditional classroom education, at the expense of our poorest students.

In 2020 we saw a scramble by the education sector, working with government, to ensure all South African learners and students could access online education irrespective of their socio-economic situations. For many students and learners this meant a heavy reliance on cell phones to access educational material with very high data costs. Solutions did emerge, which included the negotiation of zero-rating of educational websites and institutions making mobile data available to their students.

Now, just over a year later both school and higher education continues to be plagued by regular lockdowns and limited in-person access. The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally and permanently transformed the education landscape. Globally the education sector expects to retain the current hybrid or blended model of teaching for the foreseeable future. This means the need for remote access to educational content will not fall away when the COVID-19 pandemic is over or when the national state of disaster is lifted. We need to learn from the lessons of the past year and a half and ensure South Africa’s policy is flexible and adaptable so that it is the not only the small minority of elite students with high-quality Internet access at home who are able to benefit from the full range of online education offerings.

Zero rating: a question of interpretation

Zero rating is where mobile network providers and some Internet service providers do not bill their customers for accessing certain sites, in this case educational sites. This allows consumers to access those sites free-of charge and without depleting a data bundle.

South African universities first took advantage of zero-rating during the #feesmustfall protests of 2015 when campuses were forced to shut down. So, when universities again had to shut their doors in response to the COVID pandemic in 2020, there was fortunately already precedent for this solution. TENET, as the representative of some 85 research and higher education institutions in South Africa, began working with Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to negotiate zero rating of educational content with mobile service providers. TENET further acted on behalf of the Department of Higher Education and Training in the approval of zero-rating for public universities and AC.ZA domain holders.

As part of our submission to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) in respect of the ICT COVID-19 National Disaster Regulation TENET collated the input of stakeholders within public universities around the experience of zero rating and found that while it is commendable how quickly the sector responded, there is much room for improvement.

The reality of education in 2021 is that pedagogically-relevant content is no longer constrained to an institutional website or even a small number of websites. Students need access to audio and visual communications tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Classroom. In addition, it is much easier to teach a complex concept through video and in the case of technical and vocational education it is often indispensable. This means video sites like YouTube are vital. But of course, these systems are not operated exclusively for educational purposes.

The original requirement for zero-rating of educational sites came from direction 9.1 of the Electronic Communications, Postal, and Broadcasting Directions and ICASA’s regulation 6(14A). Regulation 6(14A) requires the zero-rating of “all educational sites” whereas direction 9.1 contained the four words “local educational content websites”. Each of the four words in direction 9.1 has been ascribed specific meaning by both the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DoDCT) and by Electronic Communication Network Service (ECNS) licensees (mobile network operators and Internet service providers). This meaning was further ratified by Government Notice 651 of June 2020 and in direct consultations between the DoCDT and mobile network operators. Thus, notwithstanding the broader nature of regulation 6(14A), the actual implementation of zero-rating for the higher education sector remains constrained by direction 9.1.

This narrow interpretation of the requirement for zero-rating means there is a significant disconnect between those sites that licensees are willing to zero-rate and those that are pedagogically relevant for emergency remote teaching and the continuation of learning. While our experience of this is within the post-school education and training sector, empirical evidence suggests that it holds equally true in the basic education sector.

For instance, the word “websites” has been interpreted in the narrowest possible sense to mean primarily static content and images on the web, but this has meant exclusion of web applications and media-rich content like videos which are an integral part of online learning. Modern webpages also routinely draw resources from multiple sources located on many different websites (think of a YouTube video embedded in a webpage), some of which don’t meet the zero-rating requirements. Students and learners thus don’t know whether a particular zero-rated site is really available to them free of charge.

Give the keys to the student

These challenges have been ongoing to the higher education sector since the introduction of the Internet to research and education. The workaround most popular with the higher education sector is to identify the subscriber (individual student) as a bona fide member of a higher educational institution rather than attempting to categorise the individual websites they might be visiting. This effectively means giving the keys to the individual student to unlock the information they need. Included in this should be mechanisms to authenticate educational users on public Wi-Fi hotspots and the provision of sector-specific data bundles that ring-fence the zero rating of multi-tenanted systems, which effectively means that university students be zero-rated when they access their own university’s content, but others using the same system are billed.

These zero-rating solutions need also to be made permanent, rather than tied to the declaration of the national state of disaster, in recognition of the fact that blended and online learning is here to stay. In the absence of a clear commercial gain from doing so, such an investment in the future of our country will only occur if mandated by effective regulation developed in consultation with the educational sector.

Reviving and reassessing the e-rate policy for schools

In 2005 section 73 of the Electronic Communications Act (ECA) 36 of 2005 introduced the concept of an e-rate (education rate) which would require Internet service providers (ISPs) to provide Internet access to schools at 50% of the commercial rate. In 2009 this was expanded to apply to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. While this policy was well-meaning, it never did translate into functional regulations that achieved the objectives of the Act.

The major trouble with the policy was, and remains, that it only applies in the relationship between the school or college and their ISP. The ISP therefore still must pay the full cost to their upstream provider as the ISP only provides the link between the site, in this case the school or college, and the larger telecommunications infrastructure. This has made it almost impossible for ISPs to implement because of the excessive costs they would have to carry. Currently both the Department of Basic Education, and DHET are pushing for a re-think of the original goals of the e-rate that both addresses its shortcomings and recognises that the world has changed. While it may not directly impact universities, it will have knock on positive effects for the whole education sector in South Africa. It is therefore a worthwhile initiative for the sector to support.

The power of eduroam for post-school education

TENET is the local provider of eduroam: the secure, world-wide WiFi roaming access service developed for the international research and education community. It allows students, researchers and staff from participating institutions to obtain easy Internet connectivity across campus and when visiting other participating institutions by only having to connect to eduroam once.. The original eduroam use-case was for a researcher at one institution to easily be able to collaborate with researchers at another institution without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get Internet access. But in Africa it has so much more potential to bridge the digital divide. eduroam’s model is very open: any Internet service provider (ISP) who wants to can become an eduroam service provider and TENET will happily help them with that. Across the world partnerships with municipalities to offer eduroam access to students in public spaces have proved very successful. This is a model TENET hopes will be replicated across many municipalities nationally.

In 2015, Rhodes University partnered with the Makana Municipality to provide eduroam access to students living in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown). This means all students, including UNISA students, can connect to eduroam in several libraries and a community centre. Then in June 2019 the City of Cape Town and TENET turned on eduroam in 57 of the city’s public libraries. And in 2021 eduroam was piloted in a number of Western Cape provincial hospitals to assist health sciences students serving their placements in those hospitals gain access to the Internet.

TENET is actively working to try and partner with municipalities across South Africa to make eduroam access ubiquitous in public spaces in South Africa, a project which will benefit the students of almost all South African public universities, particularly those who do not have high-speed internet at home.

The South African Broadband Education Networks (SABEN) a subsidiary of TENET, is also working to connect South Africa’s TVET colleges in South Africa to eduroam, the conclusion of this project will add nearly a million eduroam users who will benefit from rolling this network out to public spaces.

Policy to facilitate rather than restrict online learning

There has always been, across every country, a tension between policy and technology. As Bruce Schneier writes for the World Economic Forum: “technology is literally creating the world we all live in, and policymakers can’t keep up. Getting it wrong has become increasingly catastrophic.”

If we get it wrong, at this pivotal point, it will mean deepening the digital divide among our students and further entrenching South Africa’s inequality. DHET, through the work of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the National Skills Fund, the National Research Foundation (NRF) and other initiatives has done a great deal to allow young people without the financial means to get a post-school education and break the cycle of poverty. It is critical that the education sector and government work together to draft flexible and responsive policy and strategy to leverage the shift to blended and online learning as a bridge to close the inequality gap, rather than a chasm to widen it.