Access to technology and resources are critical

Access to technology and resources are critical

Article originally appeared in BusinessDay magazine

If fully harnessed, technology has all the potential to minimise the major disruptions to skills development caused by COVID-19. Has our country managed to do this, and do we have the capacity and resources to capitalise on technology? Dale Hes finds out
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a nationwide “hard” lockdown in March, skills development in South Africa ground to an abrupt halt. Government and private sector skills development programmes had to be halted, in accordance with disaster management regulations restricting the gathering and movement of people. The early days of lockdown were characterised by the uncertainty that bordered on the chaotic. But in the weeks and months that have followed, we have seen role-players slowly getting to grips with this new reality. Innovative new partnerships have been born, and much emphasis has been placed on investing in technologically-based solutions.

THE ICT SECTOR JUMPS IN

With their control of vast swathes of critical infrastructure and mobile networks, ICT giants such as MTN and Vodacom hold one of the most important keys to unlocking the doors of skills development in the era of COVID-19. Remote learning simply cannot take place without access to data, internet connectivity and devices such as smartphones and computers. “Despite the many challenges that have arisen from the pandemic, the lockdown has given us the opportunity to put e-learning platforms, and the technology used to enable this, to the test on a larger scale than ever before,” says Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive of Corporate Affairs at MTN South Africa. “The lessons we have learnt from this provide valuable insights for authorities and stakeholders in the education sector on how digital platforms can complement conventional methods of learning and teaching in the post-COVID-19 era,” says O’Sullivan. MTN has provided support for e-learning at foundation phase and tertiary levels. In partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training, MTN zero-rated the costs of running websites for public universities. “Every university comes with multiple URLs, with some of the large universities requiring support for up to 30 URLs each. MTN is currently assisting 20 universities across the country with zero-rating and is liaising with the remaining six to assess their requirements. MTN has also zero-rated TVET colleges websites, where online curricula can be made available. Currently, MTN has zero-rated several URLs for over 20 TVET colleges out of the 51 registered and the other TVET college sites are being vetted for zero-rating,” O’Sullivan points out. Crucially, however, students must be able to access the remote learning opportunities that have arisen during this crisis. MTN’s partnership with Unisa has been one of the foremost examples of making this a reality. The partnership has seen students in South Africa is provided with 30 gigabytes of data per month between mid-May and mid-July.  e company has also supported primary and secondary school learning. In April, they partnered with the Eastern Cape Department of Education to provide 72 000 SIM cards, preloaded with data, to Grade 12 pupils. In addition, MTN has contributed R27-million towards the set up of virtual classrooms in the Eastern Cape. “This move is part of MTN’s multipronged intervention that seeks to mitigate the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the communities it operates in, particularly those that have the least resources to counter the pandemic,” says O’Sullivan.