Setting the scene
The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lock-down caused disruption right across all sectors of society, and education was no exception.
In general, schools did not come off a zero base, as many of them had already been utilising some of the features of digital online education; The lock-down has indeed hastened the shift to digital platforms. The suddenness of the lock-down meant that schools and teachers had to react very nimbly, often with insufficient resources immediately to hand. They have had to quickly adapt to the drastically different situation, the response has been a combination of hard technology and remarkable ingenuity.
The world in general has been moving to digital delivery, and education has been inextricably bound up in this. The lock-down gave it a power-thrust forward. We now have to accept that the old-style education, the sort we knew in 2019, is gone forever. It will never come back.
Education and educators have experienced a paradigm shift. The lock-down has forced schools, parents, learners and teachers into a whole new space, without the backup of old systems and classrooms. There have been a number of challenges in making this rapid transition and they can be summed up as follows:
- How to maintain the quality of education?
- How to manage the cost of education?
- How to boost the capability of teachers as online educators and digital technology professionals?
- How to bring parents on board to the new role they would have to play, as the teacher surrogate in the home?
Allied to this were important questions about human rights and access to education. It is relatively easy to maintain excellent education quality in a technologically well-resourced school, and where learners have access to uncapped Wi-Fi at home. The state system cannot disregard the educational needs of learners in disadvantaged schools and disadvantaged communities. This inequality has not been addressed and will require decisive action in the future.
Technology was, and is, a key factor in this online education shift. Included in this are suitable education applications, devices to access the learning materials and provide feedback, and internet access for distribution of learning materials and for online learning forums.
An ongoing challenge has been to manage the costs of data, application access costs and proprietary content. While no one will begrudge an organisation asking fair prices for its services and products, there have been those who have charged unreasonable prices.
The vendors of some applications and devices permit only their own proprietary software to be used on their systems, such as interactive whiteboard systems. Owners of hardware and devices, like these interactive whiteboards, force users to use their proprietary software and applications. This means that a school is then tied in to purchase compliant software and cannot use other products.
Copyright has presented changes too. “Fair use” is a doctrine that permits the use of copyrighted material like books, journals, music and artwork without requiring the permission of the copyright holder. It provides a balance between the just demands of rightsholders and the need for educators, students and learners to use copyright material for education, research, in libraries and archives. The quality of online education delivery will be greatly improved if this impasse can be resolved. It is an education issue, a technology issue and a human rights issue. It can be resolved by innovative public-private partnership collaboration.
A continuing challenge is the provision of zero-rated access to genuine learning portals. The regulatory landscape must be reconfigured so that sustainable zero-rated access to education portals is the norm, rather than the exception. It is a necessary precondition for a successful country. And the sooner this area is clarified, the better.
A major concern has been providing quality online education to learners in schools that are poorly resourced and where sometimes teacher capability is lacking. Prior to the lock-down, the best teachers are enticed out of underprivileged schools to work at schools that can pay better salaries and benefits and provide a better working environment. This has increased the technological divide between urban and rural schools. Teachers’ online competencies tend to be less well represented in poorer rural schools.
The Department of Basic Education has created educational E-Centres. But these tend to be in urban environments. The challenges of going to paperless education in rural and township schools still require a concerted effort.
One solution will be to create regional hubs where teachers are able to share content and experience. In order to get the maximum value from an initiative like this, it is essential to disconnect teachers from the rigors of the timetable so that they can get away from the classroom from time to time and learn and improve their skills and connect with other teachers. Regional hubs will be a powerful platform to share content and experience and uplift the quality of teaching.
Management and Learning
Many school management problems have been made worse by the lock-down. Bureaucracy, administration and paperwork consume too much of a teacher’s valuable time. A way has to be found to get teachers away from the iron grip of the timetable, so they can re-energise, share experiences and undertake self-care.
There is also a problem with vandalism at schools. Schools are broken into, equipment is stolen. Sometimes schools are even burned down. This is an operational and security issue and demands a strong response. Schools are a place of safety and they must be kept secure.
Learners and parents have had to learn to use school-provided digital devices and take care of them. They should not be damaged, lost or stolen or used for inappropriate purposes.
The buy-in of parents is critical as an important teacher-role is delegated to them to help learners to pace and sequence the learning material. A fully cooperative blended delivery approach is required, incorporating parents, teachers, learners, technology, content and the curriculum. More attention needs to be given to the evolving role of technology in education. Technology does not replace the teacher, it augments and reinforces the role of the teacher. Portals give access to learning and learning materials to provide additional learning opportunities for students.
A well-endowed school with access to proprietary platforms like MS Teams, Zoom and Big Blue Button, and where learners have uncapped internet access, is not going to have insurmountable problems in delivering distance education.
The problem lies with under-resourced schools that do not have these facilities. Here are some of the solutions schools have come up with:
- Provide parents with a 6-week overview of what is going to be taught, so that parents are able to assist their children.
- Study material and exercises are downloaded onto a flash drive and distributed to learners. The learner uses the flash drive for study purpose on a device that can read the drive – an interactive TV or a laptop or desktop computer. This gets around the wi-fi connectivity problem. The assignments can also be returned via the flash drive.
- Schools have printed work plans and lesson sheets. These have been made available for collection at schools and the local supermarket. In some cases, food parcels have also been made available at the supermarket pickup point to support families on hard times. Assignments too have been collected at the obliging supermarkets. This is a moving example of a true community partnership!
- Pastoral care has also received attention. It is all too easy to be absorbed by the demands of the curriculum and the provision of learning. Encouragement, mental health snippets, physical exercise suggestions and light-hearted sharings have been of great assistance to locked-down families.
- WhatsApp has also been used to good effect. Teachers photograph assignments and material and disperse them to students via WhatsApp. Students utilise these for study purposes, they return their assignments via WhatsApp. The WhatsApp groups also allow learners to share ideas, jokes and solve problems.
- Teachers have sent voice notes to parents via WhatsApp to assist them with their support to their children.
In this way, resourceful teachers have utilised rudimentary solutions to ensure that learning still continues and that no child is left behind.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, although our daily world is in crisis, that learning and teaching must continue. We must do our very best to secure education as usual. We will have to fund ways of compensating for the loss of face to face contact, support remedial work and maintain the human touch – which is so vital for quality education. Social learning is as important as academic learning.
The matter is far from concluded. New challenges and new solutions will arise. We must also change the content of the current curriculum. Is it sufficient or indeed necessary for the development of responsible, contributing citizens in our new post-Covid-19 world? We will have to experiment with new options, combinations and processes. Some will undoubtedly fail. But in the end, we must have a fair, equitable, relevant and sustainable education system for our children, the leaders of tomorrow
*Being the outcome of an online discussion on The transition of online education in SA schools held on the 16th of July 2020.
The Panel was led by Mr Panyaza Lesufi, the Gauteng MEC for Education, and a proud Regenesys Business School Alumnus and other distinguished speakers
The Panelists included:
- Panyaza Lesufi – Gauteng MEC for Education
- Mugwena Maluleke – General Secretary, South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU)
- John Luis – Schools Division, Head of Academics, AdvTECH Group
- Confidence Dikgole – Director, Policy and Government Relations, ISASA
- Seliki Tlhabane – Chief Director: Math, Science and Technology Curriculum Enhancement Programmes Department of Basic Education
- Coralee van Schalkwyk – Regional Manager, Spark Schools
Have you read: E-learning in South Africa: a win-win for everybody