“Sorry I cannot hear you, I think my internet connection has been disrupted,” says the student I am attempting to have a consultation with. This has happened about three times in the last 20 minutes. Just another day in our unequal online-dominated apocalyptic world. In an era that is considered to be at the height of the technological age, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has certainly put that theory to the test. Out of necessity, face-to-face learning has been replaced by online learning in an attempt to regulate social distancing and decrease infection rate (Rashid & Yadav, 2020). As a result, inequalities that have always existed but were never obvious are becoming exactly that. Teachers, tutors and students in South Africa are confronted with the blatant reality that technology has increased the existing inequalities in the University environment and the impact thereof is severe.
Writing centers are no exception to this change and tutors have had to adapt the way in which they approach consultations. The challenges of e-learning mean that the ‘closeness’ created between student and tutor has to be fostered through remote learning platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype. Although it is possible to use camera settings in an attempt to create a ‘classroom’ like or ‘friendly’ environment this is not always possible nor realistic, especially in a country like South Africa. For many students in South Africa the shift to e-learning has been extremely challenging. Within a South African context many students are unevenly challenged regarding access to the platforms required for e-learning, resulting in a difficult transition from face-to-face learning (Mpungose, 2020). Many South Africans often do not even have access to basic resources, so internet connectivity and data before now was considered a luxury, not a necessity. The Covid-19 pandemic has widened this inequality gap even further. Many students did not have access to such facilities and have had to adapt very quickly to the technology required by e-learning and are not used to the challenges it can present.
In addition to navigating the pandemic, South Africa has its own unique challenges. One of these is our national power provider’s failure to build new power stations and replace the aging plants. The strain on the power grid risks a national crisis where the power systems will fail completely. To mitigate this, the utility service implements “load shedding” which means that different areas are deprived of power for certain periods in rotation to stabilize the strained grid. With the uncertainty and inconvenience that load shedding brings to the education sector which is already under stress, it is not surprising that e-learning has made just that much more difficult for tutors and students. With students and tutors being forced to make use of online learning platforms the effects of load shedding are drastic. As load shedding does not happen simultaneously all over South Africa it can often result in a tutor having access to the online session while their student does not (or vice versa). This is because of the different municipal areas in which they reside. If either the tutor or the student do not have data or have limited mobile data available they will not always be able to notify one another regarding the non-attendance, especially if the load shedding is unexpected.
At Stellenbosch University, a public research university in South Africa, the Writing Lab and their consultants currently make use of Microsoft Teams for consultations during the Covid-19 pandemic. This platform has been chosen because it provides the most effective means of communication during these uncertain times while still preserving the privacy of the consultant. As consultants work primarily from home they do not have an office number through which students can contact them. Neither will “old-fashioned” email communication be effective as this can increase the likelihood of a consultant taking on an editorial role instead of a tutor role.
One of the most common problems resulting from load shedding, for consultants and students alike, is the instability of the Wi-Fi facilities in the aftermath. This is because often Wi-Fi facilities will experience problems after load shedding and this results in either the tutor or the student being unable to join the virtual meeting for quite some time, or at all. The student will therefore in some cases have to make another appointment risking the same consultant not being available. Sometimes both student and tutor will be unable to accommodate a later appointment in their schedule. This means that the student will be disadvantaged because the appointment had the potential to influence their assignment. For the consultant they will receive a reduction in their consultation fee, this is because if a student does not attend a session they do not collect the full fee. This impacts their overall income.
A consequence of a disruption in Wi-Fi/ unstable internet connection is that certain features on Teams may be impacted and will cause frustrating delays. This will require significant creativity on part of the tutor who will have to find alternative means through which to communicate with the student if the audio or microphone functions are not working correctly. This can include the consultant reading the assignment out loud to the student and pointing out areas where there is ambiguity or where overall improvement can be made, in the event that the student’s microphone is not working. Another possible solution is asking the student questions directly while the student answers in the chat box.
In conclusion it is clear that writing center tutors face new and unexplored challenges. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the higher education sector, it is fortunate that in the current age of technology many institutions have been able to continue to function and provide education through online learning platforms. However, this is not the reality for a country like South Africa. Online learning is not accessible and user friendly for many students. This is aggregated by intermittent load shedding. Tutors are faced with an increased pressure to perform and maintain a smooth learning process for students under extreme circumstances. It is clear that the South African government needs to increase investment because of the technological strains that the current population, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and for the long-term benefit of the educational sector.
Mpungose, C. B. (2020). Emergent transition from face-to-face to online learning in a South African university in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 1-9.
Rashid, S. & Yadav, S. (2020). Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on higher education and research. Indian Journal of Human Development, 1-4.
About the author – Sabrina Thompson: I am currently a writing consultant at the Stellenbosch University Writing Lab in the Western Cape, South Africa. I have an undergraduate law degree (LLB) and a postgraduate master’s in law (LLM) from the University of Stellenbosch. My principle areas of research are gender and children’s rights. I am currently in the process of writing my doctorate in children’s rights. My love of language and writing has been with me since a very early age.