Digital tragedy: doing online teaching in Zimbabwe during the pandemic

On 17 March this year, Zimbabwe declared Covid-19 a national disaster. The country has been on lockdown since 30 March. The measures include the closure of schools and universities across the country. Schools were luckier, as their terms were cut short by only a few days. Universities were not so fortunate, as they were just commencing the semester, which started between February and March, and normally ends in June or July, depending on the institution. On 24 March all university campuses closed.

Most Zimbabwean universities decided to keep going with the teaching to minimise further disruptions of their activities, and moved their classes online. They are facing major challenges in this transition. At this stage, it is unclear what the final outcome will be – and if the struggles to get the students connected to the virtual classrooms might result in the postponement of the semester.

The university where I teach has also gone online, using Google Classroom. Our experiences so far show that, while many universities around the world have moved to digital teaching, the effects are highly uneven. The challenges of shifting to online education in Zimbabwe might be many more than in a rich country with high internet penetration rates and affordable connectivity and electronic equipment.

A day before the official closure of campuses, my university offered staff training on how to teach online, getting ready to start online classes with students now back home across different parts of the country.  

We soon realised however that the university plans underestimated how uneven student access to the internet and to appropriate computer equipment is. A few days after starting the online classes, a number of instructors reported that students were unable to access the platform for a number of different reasons.

One colleague complained through the staff WhatsApp group. She questioned the effectiveness of online teaching in the current Zimbabwean context:

Guys does google classroom really work?… only two students [out of a class of over 150] are online. The rest are facing challenges.

This was just the beginning, more and more lecturers started sharing SMS and WhatsApp texts received from students who could not access the platform. I received a message from a sophomore student lamenting that most of his classmates could not go online because they could not afford buying data (most Zimbabweans browse the internet through pay-as-you-go mobile connections), or they did not have electricity (the country has been going through planned prolonged black outs due to shortages), or did not own a laptop which would allow them to work properly.

Instead, the student suggested that they could create a WhatsApp group for the class, and then add me. Students noted that this would have been a better solution, given that most of them have smartphones, and WhatsApp is cheaper, because it consumes less data than Google Classroom. Unfortunately, WhatsApp is not authorised by the institution as a learning platform, so I could not take up the student’s proposal.

This and other messages I received from my students, and the frustrated accounts from my colleagues, made me reflect more about the inequalities at play in Zimbabwe’s higher education system and the resulting challenges for pedagogy.

Even though the higher education field in Zimbabwe continues to be modelled along the lines of European countries (a legacy of the colonial past), we do not have the infrastructure that these countries have, and our students are lacking the basic equipment and connectivity to enable them to study.

Institutions also conceive of students as a homogeneous group, in a way that erases class differences, cultural diversity and varying levels of computer literacy. The typical student that university administrators and lecturers have in mind comes from the educational experience of the privileged classes and elite schools. Students from poorer backgrounds are not taken into serious consideration. They have to struggle to adapt to standards that exclude them, as this attempted transition to online is clearly showing.

Going back to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on education can help us understand better the kinds of exclusion that are coming into sharp relief during the Covid-19 crisis in Zimbabwe. Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital hints at a complex set of social and symbolic aspects that characterise a person’s beliefs and actions, including the way people speak, their manners, how they have been socialised, and the kind of cultural content that influences them at different stages of their socialisation.

This capital is an asset that individuals, consciously or not, deploy in life. It determines social outcomes and levels of success – in other words, one’s own position in a highly unequal society. In a university, cultural capital plays a big role in separating students between those who feel they belong, and those who struggle to fit in and adapt to the standards imposed by the institution – between those who have the skills and the material opportunities to use Google Classroom, and those who do not.

The bulk of our students come from rural areas, since our university is located in a predominantly rural province. Their networks and relations are limited when it comes to forging relations with individuals who may provide assistance and the facilities required for online learning.

Their cultural capital is also constrained by economic factors. Most rural students do not have a laptop or a personal computer, and cannot afford to buy one. The spatial arrangements in their homes often do not allow for an adequate workspace. I hear heart-breaking stories of students travelling for dozens of kms to access a computer, or to power their laptops and find a working internet connection – and all this in a middle of a lockdown that imposes strict conditions on movement and contact with other people. Family work obligations can also be competing for time: one of my students told me that during the lockdown, he is assisting his family with the harvesting of their fields.

The disruptions brought by the necessary Covid-19 containment measures have exposed the unequal structures of university education in Zimbabwe, and reinforced, rather than transformed, the elite assumptions that guide higher education teaching and learning.

Recent debates on the need to decolonise institutions of higher education will need to be revisited and expanded to include the harsh digital divide that a potential long-term move to online learning might create, excluding already excluded students even further.

In a previous blog in Corona Times, education scholar David Mills rightly highlighted some of the empowering opportunities that digitalisation offers – in his example, the opportunity to equalise the unequal structures of traditional academic conferences through more open and inclusive digital conferences.

But the situation in Zimbabwe – surely resonant with many other African contexts – shows that existing structural inequalities in access to digital tools and to the skills required to use them effectively, need to be addressed, if we want to make sure that the ongoing transition to digital learning does not end up disenfranchising a large section of the student population.

The time has finally come to dismantle elite and privileged assumptions in higher education. If not now, when?

Josiah Taru is an anthropologist and university lecturer in Zimbabwe. He recently received his PhD in social anthropology from the University of Pretoria, where he is a fellow of the Human Economy Programme.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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