Like many other countries, South Africa initiated lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by March 2020. The Tertiary Education Network of South Africa (TENET) has been busy providing support to the university community.
“One of the consequences of the spatial inequalities in South Africa is that when the universities closed, many students went from access to high-speed internet on campus, to being reliant on a cell phone with high data costs,” says Guy Halse, Head of Trust & Identity at TENET.
Before the lockdown was announced, TENET had already begun working with Universities South Africa and mobile network operators to negotiate free access to online teaching for all university students.
Next, TENET and partners looked at solutions for the entire post-school education and training sector. Starting from June 2020, all students funded under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) were offered subsidized data packages. Nearly 30,000 schools and campuses are included.
“Zero rating is a highly technical issue, more so than people understand. Navigating the differences between what universities would like and what mobile network operators are technically able to do has been complicated,” Guy Halse admits.
Challenges aside, the project has been largely successful. Across the country, universities have transitioned to online, and students have access to a range of teaching and learning materials offered by their university without incurring data charges.
Further, TENET negotiated sector-wide pricing for the video conferencing software Zoom, using bulk purchasing power for a more favourable rate than universities would otherwise have received.
“In November 2019 we began a pilot for Zoom, and at first, there was not a lot of uptake. Then, as universities closed, the demand exploded and we went from having a few hundred users in our pilot, to well over 9,000,” says Rifaat Emeran, Service Delivery Manager at TENET.
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