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eLearning

The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need for the department of education to ramp up online education 

Experts warn that it will take some time before the education system recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic disruptions. As in most countries, education in South Africa came to a grinding halt after the first hard lockdown was introduced in March 2020. 

The departments of basic education (DBE) and higher education and training (DHET) as well as parents were compelled to switch to online learning as the only viable alternative mode of teaching and learning. Both departments were under pressure to salvage the academic year, which was all but lost due to the pandemic.

While the DBE has long championed online technology to bring innovation to education as well as promote interactive learning and teaching, the outbreak of the coronavirus highlighted the need to accelerate its implementation at school level. 

But the department failed to deliver a quick transition to online teaching and learning, mainly because of a widespread lack of internet connectivity and requisite infrastructure in most South African schools. What exacerbates the problem is the fact that only a handful of teachers were already using online technology in the classroom.  

ICT education specialists said it is not sufficient for the DBE to have sound online policies if they are not accompanied by a clear implementation plan and sustained teacher training. 

The University of Johannesburg’s vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, said the country’s education system should prepare learners for the future driven by technology. He noted that the world is irrevocably proceeding onto a 4IR path, which will in the short term contribute to massive job losses but will simultaneously pave the way for new occupations, especially in fields such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), data analysis, computer science and engineering. 

Marwala added that “it is crucial for us to embrace science, not only to answer questions and map out our future, but because we risk becoming irrelevant if we do not”. He said South Africa should leverage 4IR and other new technologies such as the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence and deploy them across all critical sectors of the economy, including health, agriculture, finance, mining and manufacturing, among others. 

Dr Mmaki Jantjies, associate professor in information systems at the University of the Western Cape, said South Africa already has policies that promote and provide guidance on how to implement technology in education. 

Mmaki said the DBE policies include “the 2003 White Paper on E-education, which acknowledges the key role that educational technologies can play in supporting teaching, learning and administration in education”. She added that “technology plays a key role as an enabler within education and can be leveraged to improve learning outcomes”.

She added: “South Africa has made significant progress by introducing, among others, computer labs and tablets into schools. The government has also phased in new technology-related curricula, such as robotics and coding, as school subjects. It is also leading various initiatives focusing on teacher training.” 

She said although many teachers have had to learn how to use technology after their training, with ongoing support they have been able to embrace the new technologies. Mmaki said young “digital native” teachers have come to play a key role as early adopters of these technologies. 

“During the pandemic, with its impact on schools, we had many examples of teachers repurposing mobile messaging applications such as WhatsApp to send learning material (including videos) to learners as a way of ensuring that learning continued from home. We need to embrace such teachers and continue to support and incentivise their innovative approaches to technology use in schools,” said Mmaki.

What the pandemic has achieved is to foster collaborations in the form of public-private partnerships. Several private sector companies availed their expertise, resources and services to help the DBE and DHET continue with tuition, using a range of virtual teaching tools such as automated development platforms and administrative and learning management systems. 

One of these organisations is the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which broadcast lessons across all the subjects, using both its TV and regional radio stations. Virtual classrooms were also set up to enable learners to access online content and broadcast support resources. The top four mobile cell phone providers, namely MTN, Cell C, Telkom and Vodacom also availed their online platforms for learners to access relevant education content.   

The four mobile telecommunications companies also agreed to zero-rate their learning sites and substantially reduce their data bundle charges to enable learners and students to use and access content. Mmaki commended the collaboration with the telecommunications entities, as it enabled learners and teachers to access the digital learning sites free of charge. 

“The collaboration between DBE, DHET and telecommunication companies is commendable, as many learning sites were zero-rated during the lockdown period. While zero-rating involves many players in the telecommunication value chain, public-private partnerships have proved important in supporting policy initiatives that aim to move towards the elementary application of innovative technologies within education,” said Mmaki. 

But Marwala said that while the concessions by the telecommunications companies are welcome, this is not a “perfect band aid” as it is a “short-term fix”. He said the digital divide remains stark. He said: “For many, limited access to devices and data posed a stark challenge. We often take for granted that these resources that we perceive as necessities are not a reality for all. For some, difficult decisions have had to be taken about whether to forego other needs in favour of data bundles.” 

He said while his university’s website has been zero-rated, many learning management systems have not. Much of the data allocated by telecommunications companies is in “night owl” bundles, he added, which can only be used between midnight and 5am. 

“The vexed issue of devices and data requires a national intervention. At the university level, there could be merit in exploring ways of utilising mobile technology to support teaching and learning. While we have continually tried to pivot solutions to these challenges, there needs to be a view towards developing long-term plans,” concluded Marwala.

Schools’ access to digital and online learning during the pandemic

Statistics gleaned from the DBE indicate that the impact rate of digital learning during the Covid-19 pandemic only reached 30% of learners throughout the country. 

These encompassed all popular media platforms ranging from radio and television to the latest online learning devices, but it also depended on the peculiarities of the learners’ situations across the country. 

Responding to a question in parliament in March last year about “the total number of schools that have been provided with ICT equipment and internet connectivity as part of the Universal Service and Access Obligation since 2015”, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said that a total of 4 831 ordinary schools had benefitted from the initiative. 

The breakdown of schools that benefitted per Network Operators is as follows:

Network operatorsPhase 1: Ordinary schools
Vodacom1 501
MTN1 360
Cell C1 360
Neotel/Liquid Telcoms610
 4 831

Each school was provided with the following ICT equipment:

• 24 x learner tablets;

• 2 x teacher laptops;

• 1 x wireless Access Points;

• 1 x server loaded with DBE electronic content;

• 1 x data projector;

• 1 x mobile charging trolley; and

• connectivity (a SIM card to support 26 devices) with 2GB of data.

Crimson Education provides a stepping stone to top global universities

Crimson Education (CE) is a global leader in online education. It claims to be the world’s most successful US and UK university admissions support consultancy, which provides a platform for students to network and gain acceptance to the Ivy League, Oxford and Cambridge.

It also boasts exciting online and interactive applications that enable students to overcome some of the most common and practical challenges such as distance, travelling and time constraints, and facilitates home visits by a tutor during the coronavirus pandemic. 

CE says its services are informed by the belief “that every student deserves individualised support in every aspect of their applications”. These include university selection strategy, test preparation, personal statements, essay support, extracurricular mentoring and interview practice.

It employs more than 2 400 tutors, strategists and mentors, many of whom attended  prestigious universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL. 

CE provides a “holistic approach” across all areas of the US and UK’s university application processes. “We assist you to find your best-fit university, create a personalised roadmap, ace your standardised tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extra-curriculars, and more,” says its website.

It has also developed an app that connects students to world-leading experts and resources, with features to streamline their learning. Some of the areas it helps with include:

Create a real-time roadmap of your targets and milestones

Connect online with a matched team of tutors, mentors and strategists based on your goals and learning style

Schedule online video sessions at your convenience, with a custom-built calendar

Chat to your support team through instant messenger to receive fast and tailored feedback

Stay informed of your progress through daily, weekly and monthly reports for your family

Crimson Education was founded in 2013 by young New Zealanders Jamie Beaton, the current chief executive, Fangzhou Jiang and Sharndre Kushor. The trio was “inspired by their own academic goals and accomplishments, and set out to help other students reach their individual university admissions goals”. 

The 26-year-old Kushor was born to South African parents who grew up at the height of the apartheid rule and moved to New Zealand in 2002. Kushor wants to use Crimson Education to make a difference by impacting lives and addressing prejudice and bias. 

CE shares ways in which learners can engage in extra-curricular activities while at home during the lockdown period. These include building a website, taking online courses using the online apps, reading, taking part in Olympiads and job shadowing without leaving home. 

Gauteng department of education is ahead of the curve in driving online education technologies

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly exposed the failure of the education system to intervene and respond urgently to the disruption caused to teaching and learning. This is despite the e-learning policies that highlight and emphasise the role of online technologies in both teaching and learning. 

Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi vowed to “eradicate the chalkboard”. His vision means that Gauteng learners have a headstart in the transition to online learning. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

Experts point out that if these policies had been followed through with implementation, schooling in the townships would not have been shut down at the beginning of the hard lockdown. 

A close look at the broad online education strategy suggests that Gauteng department of education (GDE) was the first out of the blocks in implementing the national policies. It has also succeeded in reinforcing the point that education can leverage digital technologies to ensure it is fit for purpose and produce skills aligned to the 21st century and beyond. 

Since he took over the reins as the MEC of education, Panyaza Lesufi has embarked on a bold and ambitious programme to innovate curriculum delivery by adopting a range of the latest ICT technologies. 

Under the theme of the Paperless Classroom, Lesufi vowed to eradicate the chalkboard and replace it with smartboards. He championed a move away from the old, traditional curriculum delivery practices, where learners still carry textbooks instead of tablets. 

The GDE’s plan to transform and introduce digital tools and platforms was based on five pillars: teacher development, e-content, connectivity, infrastructure and new products. Lesufi said they believe in: “One learner one tablet, one teacher one laptop, one classroom one smartboard and one school one connectivity”.

Lesufi wanted to change the face and quality of education in black schools in Gauteng. To achieve his vision he launched twin projects: Smart Schools and Schools of Specialisation.

With Smart Schools, the GDE rehabilitated the infrastructure of some schools in the province and ensured that they had the enhanced capabilities required to deliver quality teaching in classrooms fitted with the latest digital devices, such as smart interactive boards and educators resourced with laptops, while learners were given tablets. 

Schools of Specialisation (SOS) represented another key element in the GDE’s master plan to roll out its online technology strategy. SOS focuses on subjects considered essential such as maths, science and ICT; engineering; commerce and entrepreneurship; sports and performing and creative arts.

Broadly, the objective of the SOS is to ensure learners are equipped with the necessary STEM skills so that they can meaningfully participate in the fourth industrial revolution. This will also enable Gauteng to contribute towards plugging the country’s acute digital skills gaps. 

To ensure the success of the SOS, the GDE enlisted the support of relevant key industry players such as mobile service providers and the automotive sector, to avail their resources and expertise. 

To date Gauteng education has built approximately seven specialisation schools, the first being the Curtis Nkondo School of Specialisation in Soweto. The school focuses on engineering, maths and science, ICT and commerce and entrepreneurship. The department spent R80-million on refurbishing the school; sponsors include South African Airways, Barloworld, MTN, NAC and Telkom.

Another SOS is Soshanguve Engineering School based in Tshwane, which also focuses on the automotive sector. The department has partnered with BMW South Africa, which has donated a car to be used by the learners for practical lessons.

Katlehong Engineering School of Specialisation in the East Rand trains pupils to become car technicians. It has teamed up with Ford, VW, Audi, Toyota and Mazda. MerSeta (manufacturing, engineering and related services Seta) provides pupils with workplace experience, learnerships, artisanships and entrepreneurial skills. 

Evolve Online School

The majority of public schools under the DBE remained closed during the pandemic because they do not have internet connectivity. But most leading private education providers continued their normal academic programmes through online teaching and e-learning technology.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to Evolve Online School’s head, Colin Northmore. The school is part of the ADvTECH stable that provides top-end online education.

Although Northmore said for the most part, their offering is unaffected by the pandemic, he believes that the pandemic provides an opportunity for the entire education sector to re-think teaching strategies and approaches. He said teachers and school leadership should draw on the inspirational words of the late Winston Churchill, who said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” 

Northmore said many parents have been forced by the pandemic to adopt online technology and provide home-schooling to their children, which is often a totally new experience for them. He said their approach is a disruption of the traditional system in the manner called for by the late Sir Ken Robinson, who lead international projects on creative and cultural education across the world. “We have spent two weeks familiarising our students with the online platform and technologies they need to use before embarking on the academic programme. We have also taught them how to cope with the rigour required to be successful as an online learner,” said Northmore. 

He said public schools should re-think their conventional teaching methodologies. “They cannot continue to put children into a class based on age and expect them all to progress at a set pace. The level of customisation and use of data to personalise learning can be implemented in a mainstream school without significant expense. The Dell Foundation has already built the system for the DBE.” It requires teachers, he added, to become literate in the use of data to inform their practice, and principals must support and promote data training and use. 

Northmore said the digital divide between privileged and less privileged schools can be narrowed if cellular data providers commit to a zero rate for all online traffic related to education. “Given the profits they are making, I believe that they have a moral obligation to do so. The access to bandwidth is solved; then it becomes an issue of giving children access to the devices they need to access online learning. This kind of education can (and probably should) compliment school teaching,” he said. 

Added Northmore: “Community centres, churches and schools can become hubs of learning in the afternoon, on secure devices. An extra two hours a day focused on literacy and mathematics learning, and practised online, will significantly differentiate South African children’s success.” 

Northmore said the DBE can implement and integrate its e-learning and online teaching and learning plan into the education system by looking at similar cost-effective strategies that countries such as India, Rwanda and Nigeria have successfully applied. “The performance of e-learning is not an educationally challenging problem. The issue is complicated by inertia and a lack of agency or imagination.”

He said the government “inherited a profoundly dysfunctional system and have implemented various strategies to try and improve the system”. He added: “The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome. We need to adopt a fresh and disruptive approach to solve this problem. The tools and technologies exist. What is required is vision and courage.”

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