Loadshedding dims light at the end of educational tunnel

South Africa’s power crisis threatens to leave a permanent impact on the country’s educational progress, particularly on learners, schools and higher education institutions with resource challenges.

Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education, says while reports have been focusing on the impact of loadshedding on business, the economy and on SA’s citizens in general, there has been little light shone on the impact the electricity crisis has on education.

“The effect of loadshedding on learning, and particularly on South Africa’s ambitious plans to drive education towards the digital era, is far harder to quantify in the short term, but equally devastating in the medium to long term,” she says.

“Social and economic inequities continue to pervade our education system, and the electricity crisis is adding another layer to the inequity. Not only are there still too many schools with little or no electricity infrastructure, but for those that do have electricity, the ability to manage loadshedding without educational impact will again vary by socio-economic status. This ability to mitigate the impact is as true in higher education as it is in schools.”

Coughlan notes that modern education depends on power – from the simple provision of adequate lighting in lecture rooms which were built assuming there was no need for natural lighting, to the power to drive digital projectors and internet connectivity.

“Modern instructional methods, particularly in the higher education sector – and through both distance and contact learning - assumes some access to a digital device and the internet, and this is already challenging for many South Africans. Add to this an unreliable power supply, and you have a significant constraint on the development of digitally enabled blended and distance learning. For instance, a reliable electricity supply is crucial where lectures are delivered online and access is required to the collaboration tools built in to learning management systems. It is also required for communication between students and lecturers not in the same cities.

“Some institutions are reporting that venues such as libraries, that have been equipped with backup power and UPS devices, are over-crowded when there is no other power on campus. With their multiple buildings and sometimes aging infrastructure, the cost of providing alternative power is often prohibitive and the resources required are in any case not available.”

Coughlan says the impact is real even where education administrators have made as many contingency arrangements as they can, including rescheduling classes around planned outages. Furthermore, even where backup power is available, it can take over two hours to restore a computer laboratory to full functioning if there is no UPS.

“The current situation means that decisions have to be made about prioritising some learning spaces over others. For instance, while technical scientific laboratories cannot be without an uninterrupted power supply, perhaps undergraduate teaching venues can?

“The reasoning behind the decisions may be absolutely logical in the short term, but in the long term – particularly if this unstable supply is going to last – compromising undergraduate lectures will have a real impact on student success rates. These are impossible choices to make in the absence of resources to enable any others.”

Finally, there is a real threat that the power crisis can hamper SA’s progress in terms of technology in education.

“To the extent that the power crisis impacts teaching and learning every day, and to the extent that it limits our ability to fully engage in digitally enabled educational development, the electricity supply is having an impact on the educational advancement of South Africans.

“And tragically, those learners and students who already have the lowest level of access to the benefits of the digital education evolution are also most likely to be in educational institutions which are the least able to make alternative arrangements for stable electricity supply, just to keep the status quo going.”

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