Digital education with an eye on the future

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There’s a lot of hype around the fourth industrial revolution and the use of new technologies in the classroom to advance teaching and better equip children for the future. Technology has always had a transformative impact on education, and the rapid changes necessitated by the Covid-19 lockdown three months ago have brought this to the fore as never before. Educators and learners have had to adapt rapidly to a situation where they are not allowed to interact face-to-face, and instead of navigating the school commute, many learners, parents and teachers have been navigating secure online platforms, class video call schedules, and shared laptops, tablets and smartphones on an almost daily basis. 

The world of technology was already changing fast — so rapidly, in fact, that the World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new jobs that do not yet exist. Covid-19 forced schools to bring about almost overnight changes to teaching methods when classrooms were shuttered to slow the spread of the virus. It seems unlikely that things will go back to what they were before the virus, at least for quite some time to come.

In South Africa the gap between rich and poor often unfortunately manifests as a digital divide. Better resourced and private schools have a big advantage in using tech for teaching as opposed to schools in townships and remote rural areas. Making technology available to those who cannot afford it, and embracing it in the classroom, can help provide equal opportunities for all. Laptops, tablets, e-readers and smartphones can be used to connect teachers and learners and to help them interact anywhere they are, in new and interesting ways. Technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality open up new and exciting possibilities to learners who might not have had access to these before. 

The fourth industrial revolution should therefore be embraced by educators. It combines technologies from the digital, physical and biological worlds and uses a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials, 3D printing, quantum computing, Blockchain, 5G and other technologies. 

It’s true that some workers have been losing jobs due to digitisation, but the new technologies can, with innovation and the right education, create opportunities for work and economic growth that we can only dream about right now. 


Inside the classroom, for example, tools such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) open up new horizons. AR is quite simply about using technology to superimpose an image generated by a computer on the real world, and it enhances the things learners see and hear in their natural environment by using smartphones or tablets. 

VR, in turn, can put the learner in a completely virtual environment, and using it in a learning environment can boost comprehension and retention. Learners in remote and areas, for example, can use VR to easily access environments — and the best teachers — without having to travel anywhere. Pre-recorded lessons from top educators and experts, or to field trips to an aquarium, a manufacturing plant, or even a foreign country are now within everyone’s reach.

Technology for distance learning has similarly revolutionized learning during the Covid-19 epidemic; teachers have been forced to become more tech-savvy to make remote and online learning fun for their learners (and their parents). Those with the means have been using video-conferencing through apps and websites on laptops, tablets and cellphones to teach locked-down learners in real time. Teachers and learners can see and hear each other through the webcam, microphone and speakers, and teachers can share their screen and ask questions using the chat function. Programmes such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google Classrooms have quickly become part of the daily school vocabulary. 

Teachers can also post short, pre-recorded videos with lessons presented by themselves or experts in various fields using tools such as YouTube, Vimeo or Microsoft Teams. 

Teachers and students alike have attested that their learning experience has changed forever through the use of these new technologies. There is no going back now. — Carien du Plessis

The new normal: digital learning

Kids can learn at their own pace at home, but it does require self-discipline. (Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP)

Students, parents and teachers were forced into a steep learning curve when President Cyril Ramaphosa first announced South Africa’s Covid-19 hard lockdown at the end of March. According to Unesco, school closures in 160 countries worldwide impacted as much as 87% of the world’s student population.

Schools and universities were closed and classes went digital in those areas where children had access to devices and sufficient data; there were radio and television broadcasts for some children who did not. But how does digital learning differ from the traditional classroom?

1. Social interaction: The most obvious difference is that the face-to-face interaction between learners and teachers is missing in an e-learning set-up. Learners have to be self-driven and self-motivated in a digital classroom, and use online tools such as discussion boards, chat, forums, email and WhatsApp to hold discussions. Some say this could lead to more participation and substantive discussions, provided that the teacher acts as both a monitor and participant, answering questions where they arise, but also intervening when a discussion gets out of hand. 

2. Passive vs engaging: In a traditional teaching environment, learners are expected to sit, listen and take notes while the teachers explain, but a digital teaching model focuses more on participation, research and practice. 

3. Where you learn: In the traditional set-up, children are tied to a school or a classroom for learning, but with digital education, they can learn anywhere. There is a lot more flexibility for them to stop and start lessons and replay them as they want to.

4. Learning materials: Teachers have to adapt their digital learning materials to an environment where the written and visual notes take the place of them standing in front of the class explaining concepts. Teachers must remember to make use of clear headlines, bold and highlighted text, subheadings, bulleted lists and other attention-grabbing methods to keep the attention of learners. Shorter paragraphs are better than long ones. The notes should also be clearer, because the teacher might not be there immediately to clarify things. The use of audio-visual media and simulations can be more engaging and stimulating than traditional hard copy materials.

5. Automated tests: One of the most time-consuming things for teachers can be marking and correcting tests. Assessments can be automated on a digital platform, saving teachers time that can be used for other activities. Feedback for students is almost instantaneous. 

6. Going back to review things: Some children have trouble paying attention in a conventional class, or might just be having a bad day — or perhaps the teacher is in a bad mood, which also affects instruction. With e-learning it’s much easier to pause a class or to go back and review material. Some instructors might have more than one class on the same day where they present the material, and could easily omit information during one of the classes. E-learning reduces the chance of human error. 

7. Saving time: In a traditional classroom setting a lot of information can be presented in a short period, which makes it difficult for students to retain the content. Digital courses not only save time (because learners don’t have to physically travel to and between classes), it also takes away time constraints for presenting materials, because the pace of learning is determined by the learner. Digital lessons are also structured in smaller segments, which makes it easier to fit these around a busy schedule. It also gives learners the opportunity to skim over material they already know or which they find easy. 

8. The downsides: In countries with huge economic inequalities such as South Africa some kids discuss whether to use Zoom or Teams for their classes, while other kids wonder where their next meal will come from. Millions of children benefitted from school feeding schemes, which often provided them with their only meal in a day: with classes going digital, they have not been able to access food. Education experts have warned that online schooling hasn’t been possible for 80% of South Africa’s schools because teachers and learners don’t have adequate access to devices and data. If this isn’t addressed, this inequality could result in poor children lagging further behind and becoming even poorer.

Going digital during lockdown: thoughts from a teacher on embracing technology

Teachers have had to be pretty agile and adapt their style considerably during the lockdown. (Photo: Moeletsi Mabe Times Media)

Necessity is the mother of invention and teachers have been on a fast track to utilise and develop smart, electronic ways of delivering material and teaching new skills. They’ve had to re-think about how they support and assess learning.

The strides have been enormous: literally overnight teaching teams have transformed the physical school day onto online platforms. They’ve had to think deeply about the pedagogy of how children learn online. 

There has been a wide range of on-line schooling experiences for different students. Those with organisational skills and supportive home structures have flown with online learning. On-line teaching has really benefited those who have enjoyed constructing their own knowledge, at their own pace. Those who battle with organisation and independent learning have really struggled.

We learnt very quickly that one cannot just take a traditional classroom and replicate a lesson online. Whereas a classroom environment allows a teacher to interpret body language, an online environment relies on verbal clues. We found that the best approach was to limit new content to short videos (less than 15 minutes) and then to allow for much self-guided processing and application time for the student. A full grade can be taught new content by an expert in a particular section of the work, and students can pause and rewind at their own pace. Lots of time is allowed for active self-learning rather than back-to-back lessons.

Given this “flipped-classroom” approach, ideally, we would divide a class into compatible small learning groups to allow them to support one another, academically and socially. Ideally, children interact socially and bounce ideas off each other. We didn’t really have time to implement this idea before lockdown, and it’s one element we would like to explore. Since lockdown, the onus has been enormous on the teacher to prepare lessons, field questions from every child online and assess the material.

As teachers we have really had to intensify our pastoral roles — particularly for students who have struggled emotionally. Teachers, academic support specialists and psychologists have worked intensely over this period to help support students who have felt isolated, uncertain and afraid. Some students have worried about parents losing work or being on the Covid-19 frontline. Learning clusters or groups are not just important for academic learning, but vital for social and emotional support.

Most students are social learners and are missing connections terribly. Many students have said they enjoyed distance learning academically, but they have craved the interaction with their peers. They miss the stage, the sports field and the classroom banter. We need to think more deeply about how we can mitigate this loss of social interaction for any long-term online education.

I can’t see ourselves reverting entirely back to the way we taught before lockdown. There are so many positive experiences that will be used to enhance our teaching into the future. Above all, teachers and learners have had to be extremely agile in their thinking and responses to extreme uncertainty. This can only be a good thing for the future of education.

In their own words: How kids feel about lockdown learning technology

Some kids miss their teachers, especially those who make lessons come alive. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

We polled a few kids from who have had access to e-learning during South Africa’s lockdown on what they liked and didn’t like, and how they see learning and technology in the years to come. 

“My favourite part of online learning is that I get to take lots of breaks. My least favourite part is that you can’t ask your teachers and see them in person. When things go back to normal one day, I would still like to have lots of breaks in between the learning like now.”

Minhle (11)

“The subject is only as good as the teacher for me. I loved English, for example, because the teacher made the content relevant and alive. I could also write down and process the classes afterwards.”

Lara (11)

“Doing maths on my own [through distance learning] was okay, but for subjects like English and history you want to interact and debate a bit more, and so these weren’t so nice.”

Liv (18)

“The best thing of all is that I can pause the teacher and rewind. When you are in a class with the other kids, you can’t ask the teacher to stop all the time and explain it again.” 

Skye (8)

“The positives of home schooling were being at home and being able to access food at all times, having my parents around to help, staying warmer, and not having to move around all the time. The negatives were that I can’t stay focused, my attention span is short because I’ve got my phone with me all the time. You really need to rely on yourself to be accountable and to focus! In some ways learning has been more effective than going to school because the teachers give out the work and it gets done quicker, because now everyone is doing it in their own time.” 

Christina (15)

“It was a little bit bad but we came through it. The home schooling wasn’t as organised as I wanted it to be. Everything was actually on paper, because we got our work through email, not proper online schooling, except for [Microsoft] Teams meetings.”

Lourens (8)

“It was nice to have time to myself, and not having to worry about others judging me, and someone breathing down my neck to get things done, but it’s easier to procrastinate and not focus. There’s no teacher there to help you. Information is now constantly available online, on sites such as on Google Classroom. It makes it easier to catch up. When exams come, we will have many folders and sources to work from.”

Amy (15)

“I think it’s better to be in school, because you can ask the teacher direct questions. The best thing about e-learning is being able to take breaks whenever you want, and learning how to work on a computer.”

Georg (11)

“Home schooling is fine and interesting, but sometimes it can be a little stressful, because I missed my teacher a lot!”

Yanah (7)

Using tech to make maths and science fun – and easy

South African learners must improve their maths and science to compete with the rest of the world

Fifteen years ago, when Zakheni Ngubo was attending school, there was not a single maths teacher in the entire institution. Today, not much has changed. “We still have classrooms that are overcrowded, our students don’t have access to textbooks and we have a shortage of maths and science teachers.”

South Africa’s National Development Plan, as well as the World Economic Forum’s report on future jobs, have pointed out a need to improve the country’s performance in these two subject areas. 

Having been part of the system helped Ngubo understand what solutions were needed. He founded Syafunda Digital Libraries to help learners like him, bringing the classroom experience to mobile devices with content in a mix of Isizulu and English. “Examples are in Isizulu, and from the learners’ lived experiences, which means examples are practical and relatable,” Ngubo says.

His is one of two digital learning projects supported by Old Mutual. Old Mutual has been backing maths and science learning since 2013. The Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre is the other. Both projects are suitable for rural schools, because a constant internet connection is not required. Old Mutual has supported the projects with almost R25-million so far, which has gone a long way to providing learners involved with loan devices on which to access their learning.

Rural learners need to get connected to online platforms

Syafunda Digital Libraries

Any learner with internet can access this online platform, but the digital libraries are specifically aimed at supporting rural and township schools, Ngubo says. Almost 50 000 grade eight to 12 learners in KwaZulu-Natal are part of this project, which Syafunda aims to roll out over the next three years to over a million learners in the whole of this province, and to the Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

Top teachers are sourced to create content. “We work with the Department of Education’s subject advisors and curriculum specialists to identify the best teachers currently practising, and we go through a vetting, audition and training process,” Ngubo says. 

The learning platform is meant to supplement normal teaching, and to assist teachers to better navigate and improve their curriculum coverage. “Teachers can introduce a topic in class and learners can download videos and tutorials related to that topic to take home and learn at their own time and pace,” he says. “The assessments and analytics help teachers gain an in-depth understanding of their students’ capabilities.”

How does it navigate the challenge of expensive data? Ngubo says the Syafunda Digital Library is set up to cover the whole school with a free WiFi network, giving learners access to video tutorials, books, past papers and workbooks. The network covers a bigger area than the school, allowing anyone within its radius to access the material for free.

Ngubo says when the Covid-19 lockdown struck, they had to get creative. “Part of this included heavily compressing the video materials and providing audio in MP3 formats to account for limited mobile storage capacity on user devices. Our platform is zero-rated,” he says. 

One important outcome of the pandemic is the focus it has placed on the role of technology in education, Ngubo says. “If as a country we are planning and talking about the fourth industrial revolution, we have to get everyone on board, including the communities and learners. We need sustainable solutions that also address the needs of the poor.” These include having the tools required to access learning resources, such as smartphones, laptops and tablets, and making data and internet access more affordable for poor people so that they do not have to choose between buying bread and data. 

The Syafunda team is young, but Ngubo says it’s sheer coincidence. “It also speaks to who we are and our unwavering faith in the youth, and the idea that people closest to the problem should be given every opportunity to solve it,” he says. “We were all brought together by our love for education and the difference it can make in changing lives. Each one of us brings their unique self and a set of unique skills.” 

Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre

When a subject is taught well with the use of appropriate assistive technologies, it is easy to learn

The Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre (GMMDC) is situated at the Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape and was established in 2002 when struggle stalwart Govan Mbeki realised that South Africa’s future depends on innovation and fostering scarce skills. Although the programmes of the centre are accessible from anywhere, the focus has been mostly in the Eastern Cape. Part of the philosophy is that, when a subject is taught well with the use of appropriate assistive technologies, it is easy to learn.

The centre places interactive apps with digital content on handheld devices such as tablets for learners, and in resource centres in schools, while teachers get an innovative new plug-and-play GammaTutor device with pre-installed maths and science content. This presentation device can be plugged into any projector, digital screen or television and it fits into a pocket, which means teachers can easily take it to any point where they need it.

“The centre has different maths and science support programmes for different purposes and target groups,” says Professor Werner Olivier, GMMDC director.

During the Covid-19 lockdown the GMMDC continued to provide technology-assisted support to both learners and teachers. “Models had to be adjusted to accommodate the need for social distancing, so online platforms including WhatsApp and Zoom were used seamlessly to extend and supplement the offline techno-blended models that were used with great success before the lockdown period,” Olivier says. 

“Current project learners had their own personal project tablet with the TouchTutor Maths and Science app that covers the complete maths and science syllabi for secondary schools. This provided them with 24-7 assistance while at home. Structured WhatsApp and Zoom sessions provided extra support to ensure that their self-directed learning stayed on track.”

Any learner is able to access the maths and science support in eight different indigenous languages, provided by the GMMDC via the TouchTutor app for tablets, and a free mobile phone app called MobiTutorZA.

The learner incubation project of the centre has had big successes, with more than 20% of learners showing improvements in maths and science by more than 10% (some up to 30%) in one year.

“Annually, between 600 and 1 000 learners are directly involved with the tablets-assisted incubation and Technology After School Peer Support (TAPS) programmes, and more than 5 000 maths and science learners have had access to special equipment and digital resources at project schools and public spaces,” Olivier says. “More than 150 teachers are also directly involved in SACE accredited professional development programmes offered by the centre each year.”

It’s not all theory that is aligned with the school curriculum. The GMMDC also focuses on promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) education in secondary schools, which connects mathematics to different subject fields in the sciences and focuses on the promotion of creativity when solving real-life problems — in line with the educational challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. The national MathArt school competition for example, which closed at the end of May, helped hundreds of project learners in lockdown stay in touch with creative ways to express themselves through mathematics and art.

Kanyisa Diamond, Senior Project Manager: Education at the Old Mutual Foundation, says the digitisation of learning has changed education significantly. “Literally, a learner can go back to the concepts they have not understood during the class, in their own time,” she says.

Old Mutual itself has learnt major lessons in digitisation from the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first time in its 175-year history, the group couldn’t have a physical annual general meeting, and it had to be done remotely, using technology. There were also lessons learnt about quick decision-making and social responsibility. “It was necessary to be agile and responsive in the face of the crisis and remove red tape where possible,” says Dianne Richards, Old Mutual Foundation’s M&E Manager. Partnerships, especially in a crisis such as this one, have proved to be essential for greater impact and leveraging resources. The new normal holds many opportunities for improved ways of working in future, for everybody.

Old Mutual has a formidable heritage and an expanding reputation

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