/ 5 July 2023

Virtual classes can solve overcrowding and learner placement crisis

Computer literacy: In rural areas
Whereas some learners were fortunate enough to be able to access online learning platforms right from the start of the lockdown, others were dependent on government and private funders for smartphones, tablets or laptops and in some cases even free data.

Virtual classes are one of the solutions to alleviating the ongoing problem of overcrowded classrooms and excluded learners in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

Nearly 60% of the population lives in these three provinces, and the numbers have risen, creating greater demand for learner placements, according to Corrin Varady, the chief executive of education technology company IDEA.

“This can place pressure on schools in terms of catering for so many pupils in such a short timeframe, which can have an impact on the quality of the education provided,” he said.

Coupled with the continuous decline in the number of teachers in the country, Varady said the situation would only deteriorate unless a scalable technology solution was put in place.

“Virtual education can reach more people, faster and more cost effectively than simply building more schools. Does that mean we shouldn’t be building classrooms or schools? Absolutely not. The optimal mix would be to blend physical and virtual education so students are exposed to a mixture,” he said.

“These schools can help to mitigate challenges fuelling the country’s learner placement predicament such as overcrowding, teacher shortages and lack of adequate school infrastructure, while also improving learner outcomes.”

This virtual learning goal can be achieved by growing the numbers of learners who have access to the blend of online and in-school teaching and will help ensure that no child is left behind because of where they live, Varady said.

“Digital education can assist in delivering large parts of the curriculum model without displacing teachers or removing the relevance of schools. Technology in a 2024 mindset is about how technology is seen as part of a public sector delivery package and not as a private sector privilege.”

Varady explained that about half of the country’s primary school children are in classes with more than 40 learners, and 15% are in classes exceeding 50. “The higher the learner to teacher ratio, the lower the personalisation of the learning experience. This, in turn, negatively impacts learner outcomes.”

He said the technology helps to personalise learning so issues can be addressed immediately, when the learner encounters them, and not after they’ve completed their end-of-year exams when it is probably too late. 

“Access to this technology could therefore mean the difference between passing and failing,” Varady said.

But Tholokuhle Coetzee, who used to teach at Streetlight Schools — an initiative which aims to improve access to quality education in underserved areas — does not see virtual learning as the answer.

“This digital education thing is a bit unrealistic. Yes, we live in the cities and well established provinces but there are still problems like load-shedding to consider,” he said.

But Varady disagreed, saying load-shedding and connectivity infrastructure are often cited as major obstacles in the deployment of e-learning, but the biggest one is that the country has not grasped how e-learning could work in the public sector environment.

“Although South Africa is in the midst of an energy crisis and lacks enough internet access, asynchronous and offline learning solutions could bypass these challenges since they allow pupils to learn from anywhere and at any time,” he said.

“Equality is a non-negotiable. If we can see technology as a great equaliser — where it does not discriminate — rather than as the cause of the divide, we can have a conversation about how universal access to basic education and public sector high achievement rates are one and the same thing.”

“One thing is clear, unplaced learners do not need to be a continued challenge if we plan better, develop digitally and think ahead for the sake of access, outcomes and our future labour market,” Varady added.

The department of education was contacted but had not responded by the time of publication.