Into the online abyss: Teaching through technology

These are difficult days. We are a country in lockdown and schools and universities are being called on to teach remotely so that students can finish the 2020 academic year. Online teaching, however, in the most unequal country in the world, is highly problematic. 

In an article published on April 9, Professor Jonathan Jansen makes an ethical argument for why teaching online is a problem in the South African context and proposes scrapping the academic year. I do not rehearse his cogent arguments here except to underline his point that 80% of schools are disadvantaged. Most schoolchildren do not have devices or connectivity, making this online move yet another step in widening the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. 

My article is not about the ethics of online teaching and learning, but rather, deals with the pedagogical implications of teaching “through” versus “with” technology.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are tools that can be used very well, provided they are underpinned by what is referred to as a constructivist pedagogy. The research is clear: it is how the tool is used by a competent teacher that determines the outcomes. A constructivist pedagogy assumes that children are active learners who, together with the teacher, can construct knowledge. An iPad, for example, is a tool much like a pen is a tool. In the early 20th century when pens replaced chalkboards and styluses, there was a huge outcry about how this novel tool would adversely affect children.

Did the pen change children cognitively? Undoubtedly, yes. We no longer must remember things orally but can write them down, leaving cognitive space for other things. The pen alone does nothing to alter a child cognitively. Technological devices, also, cannot on their own alter a child cognitively. There is a body of evidence to show that ICTs have a positive effect on, for example, mathematical gains in primary schools, but this depends entirely on how the ICTs are used pedagogically, where pedagogy refers to the dialogical interaction opened between teacher and taught. It is in the social space opened by communicative interaction that understanding and conceptual development can happen. A pen carries with it no concepts; neither does any ICT.

If schooling is about anything, it must be about the development of cognitive functioning. This requires face to face pedagogy. I am unaware of any research suggesting that teaching through technology (as opposed to with technology) can promote cognitive development. So, pedagogically, this online move is not likely to lead to learning in any meaningful way, which starkly brings into question why this move has been made. Moreover, the practicalities of online teaching are hard to navigate, even for those who have significant privilege.

I am well educated, I have three devices in my house, and I am fairly competent at using them. I’m privileged enough to have a space to work with my daughter who, in grade 4, has begun online schooling. Grade 4 is an interesting age; at 10 children have not yet developed the ability to fully self-regulate or think in abstract ways. They require concrete examples of the concepts they will acquire over time. 

My child is at a good former Model C school and the teachers are doing their best to interact with the children online. Unfortunately, cognitively, children below the age of 13 or 14 are unable to grasp abstract concepts in the absence of concrete examples. Worksheets, placed on Google Classroom, are not concrete examples. 

Although I am educated, I am not a qualified teacher and the struggle to make concrete the concepts she is being given is a very real one. What of those parents who do not have familiarity with devices or who are not well educated? How will they traverse this uncertain terrain? 

Of course, the question then becomes, what to do if we cannot teach online?  We need to be thinking long term, it’s conceivable that children will not return to classrooms if Covid-19 is not brought under check. With this in mind, we need to streamline our curriculum to teach core concepts. If the lockdown is lifted and schooling does commence, I do not necessarily think the year is lost — provided we pare down the curriculum and use the longer holidays as teaching time. 

I’d like to salute the teachers who are sitting in their homes, with their own children and 30 to 40 virtual children, operating through a platform they were never taught to fully use in university. The next time you clap for essential services, I hope you will be clapping for these unsung heroes who educate our children.

 Joanne Hardman is associate professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town

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