The closure of schools has been commended as one of the most effective mitigatory measures to arrest the rapid spread of Covid-19 so far. Millions of learners and educators have been forced to continue learning through emergency remote instruction that involves online teaching. This presents novel challenges for educators in developing countries such as Zimbabwe where online based teaching is uncommon. Educators unions must use this occasion and advance educator’s rights and decency as work is reconfigured under lockdowns that states have imposed.
Covid-19 pandemic presents similar threats to peoples scattered across the globe, concomitantly leading to similar interventions and responses in different parts of the world. Physical distancing, washing of hands for at least twenty seconds using soap, sneezing on one’s shoulder and total and partial lockdowns have been promoted as the most effective intervention strategies to reduce new Covis-19 infections. Different nations have organized national response strategies on the basis of the abovementioned practices. Zimbabwe initially imposed a 21-day lockdown from the 30th of March 2019, before extending it by a further 14 days and eventually extending it indefinitely. The lockdown saw the closure of schools, Polytechnique colleges and universities among other non-essential sectors. The abrupt closure of universities presented challenges for both educators and learners. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, universities were closed at a time they had just opened and very little learning had taken place as the academic year starts in February. In response, most universities hastily adopted ‘emergency remote instruction’, taking the learning process online, albeit little preparation. The seemingly ‘neutral and value free’ abrupt shift to emergency remote instruction calling for instructing and accessing students through internet-based media, meant that educators had to find ways of accommodating teaching while at home. Within days of adopting emergency remote instruction, a number of educators and trade union members complained about how this move disregarded their background, gender and everyday realities. The current socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe does not allow educators to smoothly shift to online based pedagogy. The shift towards online instruction in the Zimbabwean context unsettled most educators, undermining the much heralded ‘working from home’ strategy.
Most educators are lamenting about the erratic internet connectivity that made emergency remote instruction almost impossible. A number of educators reside in peri-urban areas where internet connectivity is low and unreliable. Without reliable internet connectivity, at a time movements are outlawed and without access to institutional internet network, educators found it difficult to smoothly transition to internet-based teaching. Several weeks into the lockdown, some educators had not accessed learners. Furthermore, the cost of data is beyond the reach of most Zimbabweans, university educators included. The cost of uploading videos, sending audio lectures and sharing course packs online is almost impossible due to the high cost of data. Educators are struggling, caught between duty and the economic situation that does not allow them to provide their services to learners.
The transition to emergency remote instruction poses new challenges to educators. A number of educators noted that online teaching to some extent infringed their privacy as they have to film videos that give away the privacy of their homes. There are hurdles that remote teaching brings. How will students respond to pictures hanging on the walls and the type of interior deco on the background? While emergency remote instruction gives away loads of personal information about educators, it also makes them vulnerable to trolls and cyber bullies who can pick minute details such as home Internet Protocol address and other personal information that can be used to torment and unsettle educators. On the other hand, a number of fellow educators were uncomfortable teaching from home because their homes do not permit them such a luxury. Very few educators have home offices from where they can work whilst at home. Absence of decent places to work from made the whole shift unbearable and unpopular. In a conversation, a fellow educator highlighted to me that ‘you can work from home if the situation at home allows.’ Different family set-ups impact on whether educators fully adopt remote teaching or not.
Lastly, decisions to adopt emergency remote instruction affects male and female educators differently. Female educators noted that teaching from home presents unprecedent challenges. While working from homes, female educators must juggle between home chores, child-caring, home schooling for children and work (online teaching). Working from home is felt differently by male and female educators. With children around, female educators find little time for preparations of online content for learners.
The experiences and difficulties faced by educators as they respond to teaching under lockdown, presents new challenges that educators’ trade unions in developing countries must start thinking critically about. With the lockdown extended indefinitely in the case of Zimbabwe, working from home and remote instruction has become the ‘new normal’, educators trade unions must advance and further the interest of their constituency in these changing times. If educators are to teach from home, employers must provide necessary infrastructure to support the shift to online teaching. In countries where the cost of data is high and connectivity is limited, trade unions must push for employers to put in place schedules that allow educators to access offices and institutional network. Educator unions need to think through online teaching and how it relates to issues of privacy and academic freedom. Educators privacy is limited due to digital prints that can be traced to their homes, endangering family members and themselves. How best can educators be protected from hackers, trolls and cyber bullies? Most institutions prefer Learning Management Systems that are fully under their control, this to some extent, limits academic freedom to choose what to teach and how to deliver the content. More and more content is coming under the scrutiny of administrators who have the power to remove and repackage the content that educators choose. Lastly, when schools reopen, trade unions must be part of the dialogue on which safety measures to be put in place to protect learners and educators from a rebound of the pandemic.