Universities such as UCT, Wits, UP, and UJ have concluded deals with South Africa’s mobile network operators to offer students a free allocation of mobile data of 10GB or more.
South Africa is currently under a strict lockdown to slow the initial spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The lockdown is scheduled to be in effect until at least 30 April, and restrictions on gatherings are likely to remain in effect even after the lockdown period ends.
Schools and universities have had the April holidays to prepare to switch to remote teaching and learning.
Two of the major obstacles to remote learning in South Africa are the price of Internet access relative to the income of poorer households and the fact that many students do not have access to a suitable computer, tablet, or smartphone at home.
To address the issue of Internet access, universities have bought data from South Africa’s mobile network operators and arranged for zero-rated access to some of their online resources.
These initiatives are summarised below.
University of Cape Town (UCT)
UCT has informed students that all students with a valid South African cellphone number on file with the university will receive an allocation of mobile data.
“These agreements were negotiated separately with each service provider and students have started receiving data bundles as from Monday, 21 April,” UCT stated.
The allocations are as follows:
- Cell C: 10GB is available during the day, 20GB as part of Cell C’s Nite Data offering from 00:00 to 05:00. Valid for a month after it is provisioned.
- MTN: 10GB is available during the day, 20GB as part of MTN’s Night Express offering from 00:01 to 04:59. Valid for a month after it is provisioned.
- Telkom: 20GB is available during the day, 20GB as part of Telkom’ Night Surfer offering from 00:00 to 07:00. Valid for a month after it is provisioned.
- Vodacom: 10GB is available during the day, 20GB as part of Vodacom’s Night Owl offering from 00:00 to 05:00. Valid for a month after it is provisioned.
Cell C, Telkom and Vodacom have also all agreed to zero-rate access to certain UCT sites.
“We are still in negotiation with MTN and hope to finalise this implementation shortly,” said UCT. Zero-rating will apply to the following UCT websites:
- The UCT primary website (https://www.uct.ac.za)
- The library website (https://www.lib.uct.ac.za)
- The Vula student platform (https://vula.uct.ac.za)
- Opencast lecture streaming (https://media.uct.ac.za)
- Web authentication ADFS (any URL that contains adfs.uct.ac.za)
- Telkom and Cell C have zero-rated Open UCT (https://open.uct.ac.za)
- Vodacom has zero-rated UCT News (https://news.uct.ac.za) and UCT open access journals (https://journals.uct.ac.za)
The free data allocation will help students access resources that have not been zero-rated.
“It is important to note that even though authentication itself is zero-rated, should staff or students be authenticating to a site other than the ones listed above as zero-rated (such as LinkedIn Learning, for instance) that site will incur data charges.”
UCT also has plans for students for whom online learning may not be possible.
“UCT is setting up an additional system to distribute printed learning materials and USB drives for students who cannot access the Internet in any form. When it is safe to return to campus, students who were not able to study online, as well as other students who feel they have fallen behind in their studies, will be able to catch up through a programme of blended learning combined with face-to-face teaching.”
University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)
Wits has a similar offer for its students, giving 10GB of anytime data and 20GB of off-peak data.
“The offer is valid for one month starting on 20 April 2020, and should be used wisely for online learning and educational purposes,” Wits said.
Wits offered the following advice for students to minimise their data usage:
- Turn off automatic media downloads in apps such as WhatsApp
- Turn off autoplay in video apps like YouTube
- When viewing videos, select low-resolution options. High Definition (HD) videos use high volumes of data.
- Turn off automatic system updates and if possible, choose critical updates only. Schedule these to take place at night.
- Email documents in a zipped format but use email as a last resort. Content should rather be loaded via zero-rated university systems (for Wits, this is Moodle/Sakai).
- Turn off cloud storage and syncing options such as iCloud.
- If your device has low data or data saver modes, activate them.
Wits has a list of URLs that have been zero-rated by Cell C, MTN, Telkom, and Vodacom. As with UCT, different networks may zero-rate different URLs.
University of Pretoria (UP)
UP has arranged for its services to be zero-rated through a single URL, https://connect.up.ac.za. The university informed students that all UP-related content and the University’s digital systems may be accessed through UP Connect without incurring any data charges.
“We have made considerable progress to provide students who are in financial need with internet-enabled devices and will start delivering these soon so that we will be ready to start with online teaching and learning by 4 May,” UP stated.
University of Johannesburg
UJ has reached a deal with Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom to give all students with valid South African mobile numbers 10GB of anytime data and 20GB of off-peak data.
Like Wits and UCT, this data will be valid for 30 days from the date of allocation.
“This provision of data is in addition to the 1,750 laptops that have been distributed to all qualifying, first-year NSFAS students this year alone, and a further 4,000 available to distributed,” UJ said.
“Further details about the distribution of devices will be communicated soon.”
North West University
NWU has informed students that it has reached a zero-rating agreement with Telkom, Cell C, MTN and Vodacom.
“This means that our staff and students will be able to access study material and information on eFundi and other subsites on our website at no charge,” the university stated.
“We have also entered into agreements with telecommunication companies for reverse-billing in order to facilitate free access to the most relevant and necessary study material. Further announcements will be made in this regard.”
It also announced that it will provide an allocation of a minimum of 10GB of data to students who qualify for NSFAS loans, but who do not receive funding at this stage.
NWU also said that it is busy acquiring a significant number of laptops and other devices that will be issued to qualifying students.
“The focus will be on students without any device. The criteria and application process for the laptops/devices will be communicated soon. These devices will be issued on a loan or rental basis to students,” the university said.
“The rental charge will be reversed once the device is returned in a good and working condition, otherwise it will be charged to the student’s account.”
Like UCT, NWU is making arrangements to deliver printed materials for students who can not access the Internet.
SU has opted to loan laptops and Internet connectivity devices to students that need them. Similar to NWU, the loan is interest-free and will be reversed once the device(s) are returned in good working order.
Students will also have the option to keep the computer if their bursary provider pays for the equipment.
SU also revealed that the results of a recent survey of its students have shown that a number of them would not be able to continue their studies for the first semester fully online.
“The University is exploring ways to assist specifically socio-economically disadvantaged students who indicated on the survey that they do not have access to a device to be assisted at home with computers within the constraints of the lockdown regulations and what is practically possible,” SU stated.
“For students who cannot complete Semester 1 online due to online connectivity issues (device or internet or both), a re-run of Semester 1 modules in hybrid learning mode will be available in the second half of 2020, with an exam opportunity in January 2021 for specifically Semester 1 (2020) modules. The hybrid learning mode will consist of mostly online learning of archived first-semester lectures and other materials, with limited contact teaching sessions as far as practicable.”