On May 7 this year Renuka Vithal, University of KwaZulu-Natal’s deputy vice-chancellor of teaching and learning, sent out an internal email indicating that the university would be adopting Moodle as its on-line learning management system. All disciplines would be required to place first and second-year module material online. And first and second-year students would need to bring in a laptop with them in 2016. The latter part of the email would have sent shockwaves across the university’s campuses. However, it was only when the university resent the same email last month, did many students take note of this new change. Coinciding with the #FeesMustFall movement, the student leadership reacted with mixed feelings towards the plan, with many citing the financial burden it would place on students.
Despite these concerns, compulsory laptops at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) do seem to be inevitable. The university has already released content on Facebook reminding potential first-year students to purchase laptops in preparation for their studies. The university has also joined the Student Technology Programme (STP) which will provide laptops at affordable prices to students.
The idea of compulsory laptop use by university students isn’t something new in South Africa. The University of Johannesburg made laptop or tablets compulsory last year. Wits plans on eventually making it compulsory while the University of Cape Town has flirted with the idea. Why? Because (in spite of the costs) the idea makes perfect sense and will have many positive repercussions for the students and staff at any university.
UKZN has already highlighted one benefit: As lecture notes would no longer be charged for undergraduate level one and level two modules, the cost of buying a laptop would off-set the cost of lecture notes over a three to four year undergraduate degree period. Students would not have to wait in line at the university’s local area network to use computers — especially during busy exam periods. Having a device with them and being encouraged to use them during class would help make students more computer literate. Students unable to attend a class could view the lecture from a friend’s laptop using Skype.
It would be a boon for student activism having a vastly connected community on campus. The university could make student election days more convenient by allowing voting to take place online using a student number and password. The plan would also have a ripple effect in impoverished communities. Imagine a student taking home his or her laptop and sharing it with a younger sibling. A future generation would be empowered.
Lecturers might also benefit from lecturing a group of students with laptops. They could conduct online surveys in class to understand student perceptions of their course. They could get students to perform online quizzes during class in order to understand problem areas in a section. Expensive textbooks that may be available in soft copy could be distributed to students.
There might also be an environmentally-friendly impact for the university. There would be no need for thick course readers and bundles of notes if students are encouraged to read material on their devices.
UKZN does need to consider several issues with their plan. The introduction of a compulsory laptop policy comes in at a time when students are struggling with university enrolment fees. The prices provided on the STP site are average at best with the cheapest offering currently available at R6 545. Students will also have to contend with additional costs such as repairs to their devices. With a large contingency possessing laptops, the students could be put in danger and the university should make their security a priority. A number of students may also be unaware of the personal information stored on their laptops and could be at risk for identity theft. The university should run awareness programmes to educate these students.
Lecturers that fully embrace the use of these devices in class would also need to adapt their teaching to prevent students from being distracted by the lures of social media, instant messaging and gaming these devices bring with them. They will also need to account for students that may forget to bring in their laptops on a particular day or haven’t charged their devices. Some lecture venues and offices do not receive a strong wireless signal. One lecturer has also voiced concerns over a lack of enough ports for students to charge their device batteries. These kind of infrastructural issues need to be rectified.
So can the compulsory laptop policy make a difference to UKZN? A tentative, yes. The teaching and learning at the university has great potential to be enhanced by the power of technology. But it’s going take effort from UKZN, its staff and students to make the most of it.