It is now more than two decades after the Telecommunication Act 103 and our biggest impediment to remote learning remains the recurrent high data costs.

I am neither an epidemiologist nor an economist. I am an associate professor in education at the University of Johannesburg. I have worked for over 20 years in technology-enhanced learning. 

I have lived through the catchphrases of multipurpose community centres, e-learning, mobile learning, distance learning, blended learning, big data, real-time data analytics, artificial intelligence, 4IR, and so on. 

I am worried about our systemic response to Covid-19 for secondary schools. 

Our uncoordinated economic response to the social security of the majority of our citizens, is a major concern. On top of this, thus far all responses to “keeping learning open while schools are closed” cater for a privileged minority. 

There is the mandatory lip-service to rurality and communities living in poverty, but the substance of schooling interventions is then woefully blind to such environments.

My initial educational response to the crisis was mild: Relax. Children will be okay missing three or even six weeks of school. 

You can’t possibly expect parents to cope with working from home, loss of income, or managing their relationships in a cramped living space, learning new routines of hygiene, cleanliness, social distancing and simultaneously expect them to home-school the children in their care.

That is simply outrageous. Parents, give yourselves a break. There is a global pandemic. Health and survival first. Education later. 

Then I became angry. My outrage was directed at those who were trying to help by suggesting remote, online learning as a viable solution. 

I assumed they imagined South African homes where it is possible to access the internet with a computer, tablet, smartphone, reliable internet, money for adequate data, and access to electricity. 

My colleagues in the Bua-lit Collective captured much of my frustration. Are we really going to design a response for a privileged minority to further widen our social, economic and education inequality? I felt it would be better to do nothing about formal education, than to further advantage the few.  

Then I read a draft of the Curriculum Recovery Plan from the Department of Basic Education. This seemed more sensible. 

Assuming schools will reopen after Term 2, trim or reorganise the curriculum and assessment expectations for Grades R-11, remove June exams and replace with teaching time. 

Give a two-year catch-up period for core concepts. For Grade 12, allocate catch-up time in 2020 (longer day, shorter holidays, weekend sessions), and possibly delay final exams. 

It was only when the lockdown was extended, and the core message of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Professor Salim Abdool Karim’s presentation became clear, “We had simply bought time to prepare, and that the exponential function is inevitable”, that I got worried. 

Focusing on Grades 10-12 as a priority for formal schooling I considered the ed-tech consequences of our cavernous inequality and realised that we have to appeal to our stubbornly exploitative telecom providers. 

The ed-tech consequence of our cavernous inequality

To keep children engaged in formal remote learning we must draw on educational technology. 

But this must “take the typical South African child, who lives in under-resourced and underserved communities, as the starting point” (Bua-lit Collective).  

For the Grade 10-12 learners, who are in the 15-20 age band, I think it is reasonable to expect some independent and remote learning guided by their subject teachers (who draw on materials for a national recovery programme). 

This cannot occur without a free communication pathway between each learner and their teacher, and between them and their peers. Some Grade 10-12 learners have no device at all. 

Others have a feature phone and can only use SMS or make calls. 

Others have smartphones where (theoretically) they can access the internet and send pictures of their written work and voice notes of their talk to their teacher. 

Practically, this is impossible with prohibitive data costs (more on that later). Getting a smart device to those with feature phones or no phones becomes an educational necessity.

At a minimum, free multimedia messaging platforms (such as WhatsApp) are a workable low-tech solution. 

It requires that Grade 10-12 teachers and their learners have home access to electricity (to charge devices), a smart device (mobile phone or tablet) and data for educational purposes, including communication.

Learners would use the schedule of TV and radio lessons far more, if their rhythm of engagement was directed by their school teacher, and they were expected to offer some feedback to, or complete a task. 

In many cases, Grades 10-12 learners have access to textbooks. Their teachers can assign work and receive tasks from these books. There is no need for teachers to have sophisticated ICT skills, knowledge of learner management systems, access to office or other software. 

All work (teachers assigning tasks and learners sending their feedback) is done taking pictures of their pen and paper notes, drawing on the available resources (provided nationally via textbooks, radio, TV, in print and online).  

Has this worked before in SA in poor and rural contexts? 

Yes. WhatsApp remote learning has gone ahead during lockdown for 1,000 students in Diepsloot, who participate in the Olico maths programme. 

Their biggest obstacle? Cost of data. 

They are currently raising funding (R30 per learner per month) to overcome this. WhatsApp groups have been used successfully to facilitate professional learning communities (of teachers) in several rural districts and provinces.

What would it cost for a national intervention to support Grade 10-12 teachers to communicate remotely with their learners (using low-tech multimedia messaging) and drawing on available electronic resources?  

My back-of-an envelope calculations: For a comprehensive offering I think each teacher and learner needs a tablet and data. 

There are about one million students in each grade, so a total of three million learners. Let’s say two-thirds of our learners do not have a smart device, so we need two million smart devices. 

A mini-tablet costs between R1,500-R3,000. Let’s take the upper end, but then we include preloading all the available study materials currently on the national DBE website, and other available local learning materials and services.  We need R6-billion for these devices (and they depreciate over three years). Devices are owned by the school.  

Then there is still the question of data. 

Using Olico’s estimate of R30 per month for maths per learner, and tripling it to R100 per month (to include other subjects) that adds another R200-million per month. 

For May-November x 7 months = R1.4-billion. So we are at  R7.4-billion. And yes, a teacher would need a device, data and to be trained first, before they would be expected to assign work and offer feedback to their students. 

This can be done via districts and subject advisors.  Let’s call it R8-billion to include provincial, district and school-level training and support. R8-billion is needed to save the 2020 school year for Grades 10-12 in this low-tech approach.

Let’s now consider the cost of not doing this. Professor Servaas van der Berg and his colleagues put the cost of learner repetition in our education system (the majority of which happens in Grades 10-12) at R20-billion, at 2018 prices. 

If we have all Grade 10-12 students repeat 2020, it will cost a lot more than that… Now, R8-billion to keep these students learning doesn’t seem so bad. And these costs don’t take into account economies of scale, and discounts from hardware providers and telecommunications companies.

Our stubbornly exploitative telecommunications companies

My next concern is about the cost of data.

Quite frankly I am “g**vol” of the greed, exploitation and short-sightedness of our telecommunication companies: MTN, Vodacom, Cell C, Telkom (I don’t include Rain as it is too new). 

I am also the first to admit that their actions have been enabled by the toothlessness of the Department of Telecommunication and Postal Services and its lack of coordination with the Department of Basic Education, not to mention the (in)capacity of the Universal Service Agency. 

We have spent decades failing to get South African telecommunications companies to meaningfully honour their social obligations which are a condition of their licensing agreements. 

Subsidising data for health and education purposes was identified as a need in the Telecommunications Act 103 of 1996 and amended in 2001. It was in 2004 that Minister Naledi Pandor signed the draft of the e-education white paper (Government Gazette, 267341) in which it refers to “the legislated e-rate, a discounted connectivity rate, is designed to ensure that the cost of basic connectivity is affordable”. 

It is now more than two decades after the Telecommunication Act 103 and our biggest impediment to remote learning remains the recurrent high data costs. 

Yes we have had small-scale interventions: Telkom 1000 schools, NEPAD e-schools, Gauteng Online, Vodacom teacher centres, MTN support for SchoolNets, UkuFunda Virtual School, Vodacom e-school, Telkom schools (ask me, I was involved in evaluating many of these). Yet, we have never managed to get data zero-rated for education services. Why is that?

At first telecommunications companies told us that there was a difference between schools, and the people who go to school (learners and teachers). The e-rate could only be fixed to a building. Then they told us that zero-rating a URL was not possible. It messed with their billing system. When they eventually admitted the technical possibility of zero-rating particular URLs, they insisted on staying in competition with each other. If Vodacom offers a zero-rated website this is only for Vodacom subscribers. Every not-for-profit organisation in education had to negotiate with each telecommunications company for particular sites to be zero-rated. This was piecemeal and insufficient. 

The unaffordable data cost issue was raised as a key priority for Operation Phakisa in the Zuma administration. 

Do let me know if anything came from that. It took the Competitions Commission to prove collusion and legislate for telecommunications companies to lower their data costs in general (and these remain high by international comparison). But there was still no national e-rate or zero-rating. 

Now we read in University World News that telecommunications companies feel there is a technical problem with interpreting the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002. 

Tell me, what do you think this sentence means“electronic communications service (ECS) licensees [which includes mobile network operators] must provide zero-rated access to local educational content websites”. 

Confused? Neither am I. 

But apparently “local” could mean “locally hosted”, rather than “South African-made”, which is a problem with cloud hosting. 


Telecommunications companies are now quibbling over the meaning of “local” in the face of an unprecedented global disaster? 

Mr President, please facilitate this low-tech intervention as an urgent educational response to Covid19. 

This can operationalise your SONA commitment of tablets for learners (in Grades 10-12). Come on telecommunications companies – just come to the party! Stop leveraging your CSI for marketing, and new business. 

Stop wanting your exclusive branding on buildings/websites/apps. Now is the time. Step up and help our nation, as only you can. Join hands as a unified collaborative and zero-rate data for multimedia messaging platforms and South African-made health and education services. For this must be our new normal. DM