Lessons from lockdown
As the world entered lockdown last year, a stark divide emerged between those who were able to carry on their education or professional careers from the comfort of their homes, and those for whom education and jobs ground to a halt. For those who could continue to learn and earn remotely the situation was, well, quite nice — aside from missing friends, life was altogether more comfortable, with little need to get out of pyjamas, plenty of time saved in the absence of a daily commute, and a world of difference in accessibility for disabled people who had often been excluded quite unnecessarily from discussions which supposedly “had to” happen in person.
This, some argued, was how things should be done, and society as it was before should never resume. For those whose jobs and education did not translate to the online realm, the experience was quite different … and frankly, terrifying.
Almost two decades after the Department of Basic Education’s 2003 White Paper on E-education, which acknowledges the role of technology in enabling learning at school level, South Africa is still far from a situation in which all schoolchildren have access to means that enable them to study remotely, or even have their studies aided by technology. In a world that’s forever changed and is still rapidly shifting as the pandemic plays out, how do we apply the lessons about the positives of online learning and make them accessible, rather than exclusionary?
Making connections: internet access for all
The most widely understood aspect of the digital divide is the lack of internet connectivity for many of South Africa’s citizens. Data costs in the country are notoriously high, and the infrastructure needed for Wi-Fi connections continues to be inaccessible for many. Companies such as ikeja are making inroads into this problem by offering affordable Wi-Fi solutions, specifically by servicing informal settlement residents in the Western Cape and Gauteng, with service soon to roll out in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
For those learners for whom coverage was not a problem but data costs were a barrier to learning online, support was at hand. Many universities are equipped with their own learning portals, and moved quickly to ensure that these were zero-rated so that students could access them freely. School level institutions are less likely to have a similar in-house resource, but, as the Mail & Guardian has reported, South Africa’s four mobile telecommunications companies demonstrated their support to the cause of education by agreeing to zero-rate their learning sites and substantially reduce their data bundle charges during lockdown to enable learners to use and access content.
Should data prices continue to decrease steadily, networks will be seen to be doing their part not only for education, but also for job seekers, entrepreneurs and anyone in need of access to knowledge that recent months’ events have shown can change or even save lives.
The right stuff: equipping kids for learning
A second challenge in enabling students to learn online is giving them the physical tools to do so. There’s plenty to be said for the idea of learning that can take place from any device anywhere — such as a feature phone, with no laptop or tablet necessary — but developing educational material for these sorts of more basic and affordable tools is a specific science. Internationally and locally, brilliant innovation in the tech space has meant that educational games and other apps for learning can draw children into a world of edutainment without too much high-tech intervention. One need only look at the work produced by Cape Town’s Sea Monster to see the potential for teaching kids of every age using tech that is entertaining and doesn’t feel like school.
For those still sceptical about the role of tech in the classroom it’s helpful to understand that the knowledge imparted by a tech-based or tech-aided curriculum does not all have to do with the devices. One of the reasons often provided as evidence for the necessity of equipping kids with tech skills is that the world is becoming increasingly digitised. That’s true but digital literacy is relatively easily acquired by children growing up in a society in which tech items are ubiquitous and even their parents’ generation, let alone their own, can be considered to be digital natives. Another layer of digital knowledge and both the exciting possibilities of being able to create the technology of the future with the help of such future-looking skills as coding. But even that potential is slightly beside the point: a tech-enabled classroom does not introduce high-tech equipment for its own sake but instead harnesses the possibilities that come about when technology is included in processes of learning, problem-solving, and creativity.
Innovation often has little to do with building the flashiest piece of equipment but rather about making elegant innovative use of the tools at hand to solve a problem the basic tenets of design thinking much-beloved in the Tech industry can be taught to even young children so that their own problem-solving skills might be developed to the extent that they can become inventors innovators a major change-makers of the future. For some, ths mode of learning may foster a love for tech that results in further education in the world of coding engineering or data analysis through one of South Africa’s excellent institutions with bursary and funding models that aim to develop the country’s brightest young Minds whatever their context. For others, the ability to identify a problem then effectively design and implement its solution will prove invaluable wherever their careers take them.
But the fact is that South Africa has a set curriculum but has not yet been fully integrated into this sort of platform, and the suddenness of last year’s lockdown meant that online learning still needed to take the form, by and large, of accessing traditional educational material in a digital format. In the short term, this meant a reliance on devices donated by organisations and individuals. While genuinely heartwarming stories of generosity have abounded, it would be a stretch to say that there has been enough to go around when it comes to tech tools.
In the long — but hopefully not too long — term, this should mean an emphasis on designing learning tools for the devices with a low barrier to entry in terms of skill set and cost. As every marketer on the African continent knows, it is one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world, and if its citizens can shop from their feature phones, they can learn from them, too. Learning from user behaviours and reaching audiences where they are always smart moves, and it would be wise for anyone and the education space to pay attention to the ways in which ready-made tools such as WhatsApp are used to share and collaborate on course material and other class activity, with or without the pandemic as an influential factor.
A lot to learn: making course materials accessible
To this end, Telkom partnered with edtech platform Lightbulb Education to make the company’s accessible learning options widely available. Telkom invested in Lightbulb Education through its FutureMakers investment fund, which backs innovative small businesses in the tech industry. Then it made its offering available to Telkom users for free, zero rating data for access to the platform.
Designing a plan for remote learning requires thought about the diverse and complex contexts in which students may be learning. Aside from considering the best and worst-case scenarios in terms of internet connectivity and free access to tech devices, those in charge also need to consider how every facet of learning adapts to the online world. Does a group discussion that may have been fun in person become stressful online? Can some lesson materials be provided online but be completed offline when load-shedding hits or someone else needs the laptop? Can every learning experience truly translate to the virtual world, or will students of the future need a blended learning approach that combines some time in the classroom in person with a mostly remote curriculum?
Lightbulb Education, by which learners can cover specific topics by grade, test themselves, and access tutoring sessions, also enables parents to track their children’s progress, while teachers can use the platform to prepare lessons, create tests and assessments, and monitor class progress on learning materials. Significantly, the platform should not be seen as a stopgap until in-person education resumes; e-learning platforms of this kind present an opportunity for students, educators and parents to make use of a future-looking and cohesive approach to education. With the added challenges of overcrowded classrooms, overburdened teachers and generally under-resourced schools in South Africa, it would be an incredible aid to our education system if learners could access at least some level of support channel not entirely dependent on their own school.
A situation in which elearning is truly accessible to all may still be far off, but the possibility of a blended, integrated education system is exciting for anyone whose educational prospects have been hindered by the inability to get to school for reasons related to health, geograph
If we are to take one lesson from a frightening moment in history that none of us hopes to relive, it might be that no system or status quo is too entrenched to change. If we can make useful observations about education and apply our learnings in the near future, our next unprecedented crisis could be faced with a little less fear.