Dr Sue Timmis: Co-Director –  Centre for Knowledge, Culture and Society, School of Education, University of Bristol, UK

Alone Together was written by Sherry Turkle (2011), a digital ethnographer, and explores how technology is helping to shape what it means to be human. It makes a rather one-sided claim that technology is replacing social interaction and human contact.  Writing in the midst of an unprecedented world pandemic, nothing seems further from the truth.  The need for social interaction is increasing and many of us are seeking ways to exploit technology to achieve this. Here in the UK, online pub quizzes, choir renditions and online exercise classes replace familiar social routines with necessary, albeit clunky, digital alternatives. Meanwhile in universities and colleges in higher education, regular classes have been replaced with online teaching and resources, hastily assembled by tired and stressed academics and academic developers, trying to juggle family life and online development.  No longer is this a choice to be debated, or resisted, the digital university is here, and staff and students must make it work as best they can.

A great deal has been said and written in the last few weeks about moving to online teaching and how universities and their teaching, development and support staff need to adapt to these changes. There have also been many media contributions speculating on whether the move to online teaching will finally bring about the over-hyped ‘digital revolution’ in higher education and whether technology will, indeed, save us- see for example in the Times Higher Education, 12th March 2020 – Will the coronavirus make online education go viral? (Lau et al., 2020). These recent articles, tweets, blogs and news items that I have been reading highlight the need for supportive and meaningful pedagogies, staff training and support. In some cases they highlight existing inequalities that are being reinforced through the current crisis. Students are referred to but are rarely at the centre of the concerns being raised. In this article, I want to reflect on students and their experiences undergoing the changes. In particular, I will focus on digital inequalities and the possible consequences for students. 

Writing from the UK, I am reflecting on the feeling that we are all in this together whilst recognising that huge differences in experience persist both within and between different country contexts, largely driven by existing inequalities.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 is exacerbating inequalities as well as creating new ones and that the poorest in society will be most affected.  Working, as I have been lucky enough to do in the last few years, with students and academic colleagues in South Africa on the SARiHE project (www.sarihe.org.za) has taught me a great deal about the challenges faced by students applying for and entering higher education from rural contexts in South Africa, where digital divides are stark and access to both infrastructure and connectivity are often severely limited (Chothia, 2017). In his recent article in University World News on the challenges of Covid-19 for Higher Education across the African continent, Goolam Mohamedbhai highlights how digital divides mirror other inequalities and urban-rural divides: ‘between those countries that have better ICT infrastructure than others; between higher education institutions within the same country, with some being far better equipped and experienced than others; and between students within the same institution – the rich who live in urban areas and the poor in rural areas who can barely afford to access the internet, when and if it is available’.  Clearly, there are digital divides in many countries and communities and amongst student populations, so universities must take a lead on identifying where these exist and how they can be addressed. 

However, digital inequalities are not just a matter of ICT access and technological infrastructure, important as these are. Students from rural communities in our study, reported on the difficulties of decoding the university systems they encountered when they arrived since their prior access to technology in schools and at home had been very limited (Timmis & Muhuro, 2019). In the current pandemic crisis, where students, including those in their first year, will be expected to work remotely from home, there are real risks of some being denied opportunities to study. Not only are there a great many access issues, especially for those who live in remote areas, but equally if the systems and processes adopted by universities are too opaque or technocratic, these reinforce the gap between institutional requirements and university students’ own digital literacy practices using mobile phones (Czerniewicz & Brown, 2014; Kajee & Balfour, 2011). Whilst this may be more critical for those in remote areas, to an extent, this is potentially the case for any student.

Digital inequalities are also spatial, social and cultural. Working online (as many of us are finding out) is an immensely social experience, be it positively or negatively so. If you cannot participate alongside your fellow students in an online zoom class because you don’t have access to the Internet, for example, how does that limit both your educational and your social opportunities? If students experiencing digital inequalities are denied social experiences as well, how could these limitations be mitigated? Student co-researchers, in our study, emphasised that being at university is as much a social as an educational experience and that supporting each other was often critical to success (Timmis et al., 2019). This is perhaps even more the case, when you are remote from your peers. Furthermore working online multimodally brings our own homes and social worlds visibly into the academic world (and vice versa). We can see into each other’s homes and family contexts and that may make it difficult or uncomfortable for those who do not have dedicated or quiet space set aside and for families who must accommodate academic interventions in their lives.   Mgengi-Gweva (2020) and Rowe (2020) both writing their own recent articles for Heltasa reflect on some of these spatial and cultural challenges and the need for universities to take account of home contexts in their online learning course designs. 

A recent University World News report highlights the on-going negotiations with telecommunications companies in South Africa to enable zero rated Internet access for higher education institutions and therefore give students cost free access to university websites and resources remotely (Dell, 2020). This seems a welcome development but won’t address the social, cultural and spatial inequalities highlighted above. Working alongside student co-researchers on the SARiHE project we also learned that students can and want to participate in making changes that will benefit everyone so I wonder if we are consulting students enough in the development of the new spaces, challenges and opportunities of higher education? Are there ways that they could be enabled and encouraged to support each other more actively using their own social networks alongside university online classes and activities? SARiHE co-researchers also highlighted the importance of church and community leaders in rural communities. In what ways could local partners such as these help in, for example, developing remote study centres to support both distributed social and digital infrastructures?

I recognise that in Southern Africa, many of the issues raised here (and others no doubt) are likely to be well rehearsed and acknowledged. My own reading of the situation in the UK is that we are grappling with similar issues and whilst the inequalities are different, they still exist. It is important at this time to share ideas and raise concerns as much as we can, whilst recognising that local and national contexts need to be considered. Returning to Turkle’s notion of  ‘Alone Together’, perhaps the alternative ‘Together Apart’ could become a guiding principle within and across institutions. Developing a dialogue where we can learn from each other at this pivotal moment might also contribute to the long overdue reform of global north-south relations and the dominance of Western knowledge in favour of the co-creation of new knowledges and actions.

Sue would like to thank her fellow researchers from the SARiHE project – Sheila Trahar, Patricia Muhuro, Lisa Lucas, Gina Wisker and Emmanuel Mgqwashu for very helpful comments on an earlier draft.


Chothia, A. (2017, January 13). For SA’s rural residents the data struggle is real. Retrieved from https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/for-sas-rural-residents-the-data-struggle-is-real-7399832

Czerniewicz, L., & Brown, C. (2014). The Habitus and Technological Practices of Rural Students: A Case Study. South African Journal of Education, 34(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.15700/201412120933

Dell, S. (2020) Zero-rating online learning – Not as simple as it sounds. University World News. 09 April 2020 https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200408201225155

Kajee, L., & Balfour, R. (2011). Students’ access to digital literacy at a South African university: Privilege and marginalisation. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, 29(2), 187–196. https://doi.org/10.2989/16073614.2011.633365

Lau, J. Yang, B. Dasgupta, R.(2020) ‘Will the coronavirus make online education go viral?’ Times Higher Education. 12 March 2020. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/will-coronavirus-make-online-education-go-viral

Mgengi- Gweva, D. (2020) South African institutional diversity and silence in response to Covid-19. Hetasa website think piece. https://test4.icontest.co.za/south-african-institutional-diversity-and-silence-in-response-to-covid-19/

Mohamedbhai, G.  (2020) COVID-19: What consequences for higher education? University World News. 09 April 2020.  https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200407064850279

Rowe, M. (2020) Universal principles of learning task design. Crisis edition.  Think piece for Heltasa website. https://test4.icontest.co.za/universal-principles-of-learning-task-design-crisis-edition/

Timmis, S., Mgqwashu, E. M., Naidoo, K., Muhuro, P., Trahar, S., Lucas, L., Wisker, G., de Wet, T. (2019). Encounters with coloniality students’ experiences of transitions from rural contexts into higher education in South Africa. Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning, 7(Special Issue), 76–101. https://doi.org/10.14426/cristal.v7iSI.195

Timmis, S., & Muhuro, P. (2019). De-coding or de-colonising the technocratic university? Rural students’ digital transitions to South African higher education. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2019.1623250

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books