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Stellenbosch University (SU) staff and students are preparing to enter unventured territory as 20 April looms closer. Prof Wim De Villiers, Rector and Vice Chancellor of SU, released a statement on 26 March stating that the March recess is extended and online learning will commence on 20 April due to the South African lockdown and COVID-19 pandemic. Since then the university has released a document detailing how access to online learning will be achieved and what a zero-rate SUNLearn implies.

Dr Antoinette van der Merwe, Senior Director of Learning and Teaching Enhancement (Online Learning and Assessment), describes how SU managed to get the local service providers on board with a zero-rated SUNLearn.

“The precedent of a zero-rated SUNLearn was set during #FeesMustFall [but] the government had also put pressure on the mobile networks to reduce data costs, well before the COVID-19 pandemic. The government pressure was probably the biggest factor which led to the service providers agreeing to zero rate some services,” Van der Merwe said.

Joe Smit, Director: IT Infrastructure at SU, led the negotiations with the four major network providers for SU following the discussion on zero-rating at the Association of South African Universities Directors of Information Technology (ASAUDIT). According to Smit these discussions resulted in the four major service providers agreeing to zero-rate a limited number of URLs per university.

Telkom, VodaCom, MTN and Cell C are the service providers that have agreed to offer zero-rated SUNLearn and affordable SIM cards that can be purchased during the lockdown from food retailers such as Pick n Pay, Checkers or Checkers Hyper and Shoprite. When purchasing a SIM card, students need to have a form of ID as well as proof of residence in order to activate it. These SIM cards all cost under R5 and require very little data to access the internet. For more tips on data saving and how the individual SIM cards and network providers have approached zero-rating, refer to the Student Support: Sim Cards for Mobile Data webpage here .

Van der Merwe explained that, “It is not a blanket zero rating, but rather a very restricted set of URL addresses which each University is allowed to ask for.” This means that while SUNLearn and SUNStream are free, the downloading of lecture slides and material as well any background data will incur small costs. Similarly, if the student breaks out of the zerorated site to e.g YouTube or Google, that will result in the relevant data fees. As there are only a limited number of URLs available to be zero-rated and SUNLean and SUNStream needed to be prioritised, at the moment library access is not zero-rated, however SU will work in future negotiations to have additional sites included.

According to Van der Merwe the mobile network providers would like to suspend zero-rating after the lockdown, just as it was suspended after the #FeesMustFall protests, however, pressure from the government may force service providers to keep the zero rating.

Regardless of the state of the country online learning will commence on the 20 April, and Van der Merwe has assured that, “Every effort will be made to treat students fairly based on their own individual circumstances.”

Van der Merwe also confirmed measures have been put in place to not only accommodate students but also lecturers, as well as the possibility of online exams.

Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, Head of the Disability Unit: Centre for Student Counselling and Development, has ensured that there are already systems for high levels of support with regards to students with disabilities in place, as well as the use of podcasts and captioned lecture presentations that many lecturers already implement.

Lyner-Cleophas has also confirmed that the department is liaising with Van der Merwe regarding concessions and alternative means of assessment with regards to students who require extra time, scribes, readers etc when it comes to online exams.

For more information and updates regarding COVID-19 and SU follow #supportUS on social media and regularly check the official SU COVID-19 webpage.

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