During the COVID-19 pandemic, full-time face-to-face classes were shifted to online classes while distance learning programmes were run as they used to be. In addition to this dramatic shift online, the trend globally seems to be to conflate distance with online learning, and, in so doing, to replace distance learning with online learning. Going online is, in many ways, economical for a higher education institution. The cost of printing study guides, which are the basis of traditional forms of distance education, will be eliminated and that saves millions for the university. On first impression, online seems to be the way to go, but if one scrutinises the situation more thoroughly, there is more that needs to be considered in terms of contextual needs. While the decision to go online will benefit the institution’s “bottom line”, some students with limited access to technology and connectivity will be impacted.
I am an instructional designer at a Namibian university and have primarily worked on the development of printed study guides for distance education programmes. However, with the increase in digital learning, my role has slowly shifted to focusing on developing for online learning as the university moves away from printed study guides.
This short position piece seeks to make the case for considering access to digital course materials in a context characterised by constrained digital infrastructure and limited access to this infrastructure. I question the kinds of study materials that are needed for distance students and argue that print materials still have a place in today’s society.
Namibia, a country in Southwestern Africa, is sparsely populated with over 2.5 million people in an 823 290 km2 area (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2019; World Population Prospects, 2022). Namibia is almost four times the size of United Kingdom with only a fraction (0.04%) of the population. Given the country’s socioeconomic climate and legacy of apartheid, it is challenging to provide the necessary infrastructure such as electricity and mobile connectivity all over the country. Most rural communities depend on agriculture, whether it is husbandry or horticulture, for survival. Most of the population is also found in rural areas with limited access to infrastructure. Those who are populating the rural areas where there is no electricity are mostly the black population of Namibia. The black population, who were marginalised during colonial times, are still suffering the consequences of the past, and are finding it hard to make ends meet. Due to limited or no electricity, devices and internet connectivity, they are also the ones who find it hard to learn online.
The University of Namibia (UNAM) is one of the universities in Namibia offering courses through distance learning. UNAM offers opportunities to the Namibian population to study full-time or part-time through its various programmes. One of the most prominent reasons for distance study is that students are working full-time and have no time to come to classes as the times of the classes and their working hours clash or have commitments beyond work and thus are unable to attend full-time classes.
The opportunities which are offered on a part-time basis include those offered through the distance modes. For online programmes, students engage in the course guided by the lecturer and using technology such as a learning management system. Through distance mode, the students receive hard copy or printed study guides and meet the tutor once or twice a year face-to-face for clarifications of course materials. While infrequent, these meetups are helpful to students who are struggling to understand the course content.
Even students who may have access to technology and devices, many, particularly in African education institutions, still experience issues around internet connection speeds or unreliable internet access — making online learning a challenge (Zell, 2020). Therefore, students who reside in rural areas decide to study through distance learning and receive print study guides, aligning with their needs. However, there seems to be a trend to do away with the hard copy study guides and replace them with online learning where the students will be forced to use technology to study as that will be the only option for studying at a distance.
The move to online learning raises several concerns. One particular concern is the digital divide within the Namibian population. In the context of Namibia, the digital divide can be usefully understood to refer not only to unequal access to technology but also to unequal access to digital literacies to make optimal use of these technologies (Kumar & Strazdins, 2021). Even in comparison to other African countries, Namibia has low network coverage, relatively high handset costs, poor online security but, for the region, relatively good basic literacy and equitable access to devices by gender (Kumar & Strazdins, 2021).
The digital divide is thus a core determinant for the kind of materials universities should develop for their students. Certainly, providing students with e-learning opportunities is a way of reaching remote students. But for this to be successful, the digital divide needs to be overcome. In my view, until digital access and literacy are more widely distributed among the Namibian population, distance learning through printed study guides remains a necessary strategy to reach those in rural areas, and sectors of the population with limited access to data, devices and high-quality internet.
While online learning and digital materials offer several advantages, I maintain that print course materials are still necessary to provide inclusive and accessible education for rural Namibia and the rest of Africa. Even rich countries like the US have extreme inequalities and places with poor connectivity. There are still people everywhere who do not have devices which are adequate for studying purposes. Educators have a responsibility to all students, no matter what their conditions of access. While it is important that we embrace and leverage the digital era, we are not ready to abandon the ship of print-based course materials — not yet anyway.
Food and Agriculture Organization. Country profiles. https://www.fao.org/countryprofiles/
Kumar, R., & Strazdins, N. (2021). The digital infrastructure divide in the commonwealth. Commonwealth Secretariat.
World Population Prospects. (2022). United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division. https://population.un.org/wpp/
Zell, H. M. (2020). Digital vs print resources at African university institutions: A discussion document. https://www.academia.edu/43714325/Digital_vs_Print_Resources_at_African_University_Institutions_A_Discussion_Document
University of Namibia
This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.
Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/ldvoices/Digital_divide_materials.