We must keep Covid-19’s gains in education

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The Covid-19 disaster showed much that is wrong in South Africa, but it also demonstrated that many things can be made a lot better — fast. Food vouchers sent by cellphone showed that help can be provided without the costs and risks of distributing food parcels; and, speaking of cellphones, the zero-rating of local educational websites proved that poorer families can be included in the digital revolution. Problem is, this benefit is tied to the disaster regulations — and, when those are lifted, there will be no legal obligation on the cellular network operators to keep zero-rating these websites.

In April 2020, the department of communications and digital technologies directed the network operators to zero-rate local educational and Covid-19-related health content on websites. Eventually, more than 1 000 sites were officially zero-rated, making them free to the user. 

Most of these were universities, colleges and schools, but a few — 50 or so — were public benefit organisations (PBOs), whose life’s work is to provide the poorest families with learning resources and access to opportunities. Some of them, like Acorn Education, proved that a child can learn a school curriculum on 25 to 50 megabytes of data a day.

In the first few weeks, the telecommunication companies were swamped with requests for online streaming of lectures coming from universities and technical colleges. More modest, but still striking, was the increase in demand from users of PBO services. For example, visits to Book Dash, which publishes free children’s books, increased by 25%. Nal’ibali’s reading-for-joy website saw a 50% increase in traffic, with the average visitor staying on the site much longer than before.

There were benefits for early childhood development as well, with visits to Smart Start’s early learning website increasing from 5 000 to 29 000 by the end of the first month of free access. Wordworks’ home literacy site provides information and resources for parents. Its traffic increased from 3 553 to 80 995 unique visits over that time. 

These are just a few examples that illustrate the need and demand for basic learning content that — in ordinary times — is denied to our poorest families.

Over time, that demand will grow, but that growth will not be unmanageable if the government makes use of statutory requirements of operators that are already in place (and preceded the disaster regulations). 

In terms of the Electronic Communications Act, telecommunication companies are required to contribute up to 1% of their net profit after tax to the Universal Service and Access Fund, administered by the Universal Service and Access Agency (Usaasa). The exact percentage is set by the relevant minister and is subject to change. It currently sits at a miserly 0.2%. 

But even that amount would have an effect. All it would require is for Usaasa to repurpose some of the network operators’ current contributions to infrastructure in schools (which keeps getting stolen or breaking down) towards service access for people in their own homes. An even simpler solution is for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa to make zero-rating of PBO websites a condition of the new spectrum licence.

The network operators have promised the Competition Commission that they will accommodate hundreds of PBOs within their new suites of zero-rated services for their subscribers. 

The problem is that if the operators get to pick and choose the PBOs, users surfing from one public benefit website to the next will get dumped at different paywalls, depending on the colour of their SIM cards — more a maze of dead ends than a seamless pathway for learning.

Leaving it to the telecommunication companies may also leave out especially marginalised groups. For example, vital websites serving young people not in employment, education or training were not zero-rated, because they weren’t on the radar of the drafters of the disaster regulations. They focused on schoolchildren and students in college or university. These websites include Harambee, Jobstarter and Activate’s A-Academy — all of which reach those young people with the least access to opportunity.  

Whether through obligation or voluntarily, network operators must agree to zero-rate the digital content of all public benefit organisations — obviously subject to caps on usage. The Covid-19 epidemic has shown that, in normal times, we ignored solutions staring us in the face. When the disaster regulations are lifted, we cannot go back to pretending they’re not there.

David Harrison is the chief executive of the DG Murray Trust, which contributes to public innovation through strategic investments in the nonprofit sector

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