For most higher education students, even at the best of times, the process of learning is a strenuous path of pain and frustration. And these are not the best of times. With the Covid-19 pandemic tertiary education student find themselves thrust into a massive upheaval. While most arm chair philosophers are arguing about the new normal and how e-learning may change how school operate, very few are talking about how to take care of those in the middle of this huge shift.
Dr Sophie Moagi, clinical psychologist in Gaborone says. “There is a vast “digital inequality” that exists in society. One cannot assume that all students, as well as educators, would have access to internet connectivity and associated powerful devices outside of their university, to be able to communicate. Affordability is another factor to limit the access to e Learning with students from economically weaker sections facing a greater burden. The impact of accessibility and affordability can have serious implications on students in higher education system unless student-friendly government policies are in place which can ensure affordability and accessibility of the internet to students. The students face major hurdles with remote learning as face-to-face communication is more conducive to the learning process, presenting a better opportunity to sharing knowledge and asking for help. The sense of belonging is limited in a virtual class. The students who have less ability to self-regulate or study autonomously struggle with no teacher providing in-person support.”
The corona virus crisis brought unexpected and significant disruption to the lives of many. The higher education sector was no different, relying heavily on e Learning to salvage semesters from the jaws of lockdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing protocols.
The novel corona virus has impacted higher education more than any other event in modern history, putting the future of many institutions in doubt. The entire industry has been forced to restructure, seemingly overnight. Universities and college campuses are places where students live and study in close proximity to each other. They are also buzzing cultural hubs where students are brought together from nations around the world. Recently, the foundations of this unique ecosystem have been impacted significantly by the rapid spread of the corona virus (Covid-19) outbreak, creating uncertainty regarding the implications for higher education. While institutions were utilising e Learning to a degree prior to the corona virus crisis, the adoption of this approach was slow, with the perception that face-to-face and traditional learning was superior to digital approaches. The corona virus pandemic not only accelerated this shift to e Learning but encouraged the advancement of the technology used in the remote learning process.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the access to higher education in numerous ways, some of them indirect. Students encounter difficulties such as mental health or uncertainty issues that result indirectly from the health crisis and the measures taken by governments. While students are already recognized as a particularly vulnerable population, the Covid-19 pandemic has further amplified their distress. Indeed, young people and students are considered as one of the most fragile groups, suffering higher rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders compared to the general population. With the pandemic, the burden on the mental health of this population has been amplified. Multiple factors are at play regarding students’ mental health. Restrictive measures, the closure of universities, online classes, exam conditions, loss of jobs or anxiety concerning the future have all exacerbated students’ isolation and in some cases uncertainty – which are two factors which are known to be associated with mental health issues.
While some universities have adapted their curriculum, students often struggle with the same workload. However, online classes raises many difficulties. Students need more time to understand and assimilate the information, which increases the total workload. They lose a lot of energy trying to stay concentrated, and often end up being extremely tired. The shift to online classes reduces most student’s studying capacities. They have difficulties studying, their work is less qualitative and it takes them twice as long to do an exercise. These barriers to studying will also have consequences on students’ futures. As students are supposed to acquire critical knowledge for the rest of their curriculum, falling behind classes can have a long-term impact. Uncertainty is an important risk factor for mental health issues, and the Covid-19 outbreak has created financial constraints for many students, mostly due to the loss of student jobs. Students in precarious situations experience additional stress to meet basic needs and face very difficult studying conditions, their ability to pay their rent, to afford health care, to eat, are being dramatically threatened.
Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “On top of these insecurities brought by the pandemic, virtual learning has posed a challenge to students without personal computers or reliable internet connections, particularly students from rural areas and non-traditional students who have other responsibilities, such as childcare or full-time employment. There’s a lack of good and strong enough broadband access. If you’re going to do Zoom every day, you actually have to have pretty high-speed Internet, and your laptop actually has to be really high-functioning. Although many institutions intend to resume with full in-person courses next academic year, COVID-19 will be far from a thing of the past as many universities are even requiring students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus. Similar to COVID-19 protocols, universities have the freedom to decide the measures taken to reintegrate students into campus life.”