The Stellenbosch University Hybrid Learning Unit is piloting a range of hybrid learning offerings to respond to the global trend of providing combined online and face-to-face flexible learning opportunities for a diverse range of students. (Photo: James Cameron Heron)
The best of both worlds
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic brought along with it a seismic shift within the education space, according to best-selling author Professor Vijay Govindarajan, who was speaking at a Harvard Business Publishing webinar. Schools and universities were forced to rapidly and drastically shift their focus from in-person classes to online methods of teaching and learning in an unprecedented amount of time. As this shift between the “real world” and virtual spaces became more pronounced and more accepted, questions arose as to whether the physical space or the digital space was more suited to preparing the learners of today for the future of work.
For some people, the answer is simple: there is no reason to choose. While online learning has many advantages, such as lower costs, ease of access, lack of physical commuting and increased flexibility for learners and parents, in-person classes allow for more traditional social interaction, a closer connection to other students and more direct supervision. There are many factors to consider when weighing up the options, but experts agree that when done correctly, hybrid or blended learning environments offer the best of both worlds.
Virtual education can make learning more accessible to students who may face barriers in the traditional education system. It allows learners who might not be able to fully engage in a physical classroom — for whatever reason — the opportunity to access learning materials, live lessons and even assessments.
Learners with physical disabilities may be able to participate more fully from an environment that they are comfortable in, while scholars who face learning challenges because of conditions such as autism or social anxiety may be more comfortable in an environment where they are in control of the stimuli around them.
Online learning allows students to access and re-access learning materials such as module contents, assignments, lecture materials, podcasts, and recorded sessions anytime during the course of their studies, from wherever they are.
Online classes for adult learners also allow marginalised students, learners with children or other care responsibilities and people who work full time to receive their high school qualification or university degrees on their own terms, at a fraction of the cost. When this is combined with occasional in-person sessions or limited face-to-face classes, the benefits of both learning modalities can be fully realised.
While this seems promising, it is important to remember that many South Africans struggle to access virtual learning options, as the digital divide and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is very pronounced. This is a difficult situation to overcome; online learning opportunities can help elevate marginalised groups and elevate the educational status of people who cannot access traditional learning environments, but a lack of access to online learning technologies for learners in this group remains one of the biggest challenges.
According to a report by the South African Department of Statistics, there is a disparity in access to the necessary resources for remote learning. According to the 2020 report, only about 7% of households with people between the ages of five and 25 had internet at home; most households use smartphones to access the web.
Examples of these challenges within an online learning context were highlighted by Stellenbosch University lecturer and researcher Dr Marenet Jordaan and writer and lecturer Anneli Groenewald in a research study titled Suddenly Apart, Yet Still Connected: South African Postgraduate Journalism Students’ Responses to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning.
Despite the privilege of the institution, many students in the Department of Journalism still struggled to access the internet due to connectivity challenges. “Some students relied on the internet facilities on campus and became dependent on limited mobile data bundles provided by the university for a few months during emergency remote teaching,” states the study.
The issue of accessibility is however not fully addressed by in-person classes, as many schools in South Africa are remote and it takes time for students to reach them. According to an Amnesty International report: “Some children walk for between 30 minutes and an hour to get to their educational institution, meaning it is likely to be more than 3km travel.” This, the organisation says, is despite the fact that the Departments of Transport and Basic Education are required to provide transport to the students.
Physical and social interactions
One of the obvious benefits of in-person learning is the physical interaction that has been the norm in the past. Sharing a physical space with learners can make facilitating lessons, conducting discussions and making use of experiential learning easier and more natural. Most people enjoy interacting in person, and group energy can heavily influence the mood and outcome of a learning experience. Effective communication is key to successful learning; this does not mean that communication cannot happen in a virtual setting, but rather that it might take some getting used to and need a bit more effort to engage learners.
Traditionally, the school yard has also been where socialisation and relationship building happen. Historically this was considered easier in person, but with technological advancements and increased social media, video and messaging platforms this is fast changing. With many social interactions moving into digital spaces, parents may be afforded more control over the type of relationships and the people their children form them with. A digital footprint also acts as an accountability measure, and can help sensitise children to the impacts and implications of negative social interactions such as bullying.
While some social interactions can damage self-esteem and mental health, friendships and positive in-person conversations can also benefit learner wellbeing, reduce stress and lower anxiety levels.
Many parents fear that socialisation and social engagement might be lacking in children who attend school remotely, but many online institutions offer virtual opportunities for learners to connect. The University of Cape Town (UCT) Online High School offers students a support coach, and claims that the multi-layered support systems give their learners all the encouragement, tools, and support they need to master their own destiny. Other online schools host virtual debates, online clubs for chess or other activities, and even coordinate remote choir rehearsals and performances — despite the fact that not a single learner is singing in the same physical space.
Hybrid education: Reaping the benefits of both
Since both virtual and in-person lessons fall short, experts say a hybrid option can be explored as a more viable, future-proofed learning experience. Hybrid or blended learning serves to combine online and traditional learning approaches, with the aim to deliver the most effective teaching method for every context.
Many students (and their parents) are not yet willing to make the shift towards a fully virtual learning experience, and hybrid learning can be a convenient way to ease learners into being more comfortable with working remotely. This is necessary, as many companies realise that physical presence does not necessarily mean more productivity.
In a hybrid environment, where in-person interactions and online learning resources are combined, children and adolescents can still experience traditional socialisation and team work in person, while fostering skills such as self-management, responsibility and independence when working remotely. Experts agree that a blended learning model meets the needs of most mainstream learners, while allowing them to stay abreast of the digital skills required going forward.
— Wessel Krige
The cost of learning: How online learning compares
Many learners are denied access to quality education because they lack financial resources, but online and hybrid learning has the potential to change that. Whether opting for the premium schooling options or more affordable school networks, parents could be saving between R60 000 and R70 000 each year by taking their child’s learning online.
While tuition fees might be lower than those in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, Educational Consultant Zama Ndlovu says there are hidden costs to look out for. When some learning is conducted online, travelling costs and tuition fees may decrease significantly as a result of less frequent travels to a physical learning environment. “Conventional classroom learning carries more administration cost, and may not be flexible, which will result in extra costs if a learner’s situation changes — if they have to move to a new area, start working part-time or fall ill,” she explains. When attending a physical school, parents also need to fork out for extras such as school uniforms, textbooks and extramural activities.
She says the initial start-up costs might be higher when embarking on a hybrid or online education, as learners need access to additional learning aids like a laptop, uninterrupted access to electricity and a stable internet connection. “There might also be a need for additional or newer software, and in the event of missed classes you might have to pay extra for a tutor to help get back on track,” she explains. “Parents should also consider extra mobile data costs, because although not directly linked to learning, their children might be increasingly conducting social interactions online as they no longer see their friends in-person every day and might spend more time with them on the phone.”
Parents should also factor in the additional support and responsibility that will now fall on them, as the responsibility during the school day is now no longer delegated solely to teachers and other school staff. “Learners will be required to be more independent and have excellent time management skills to be competent in remote learning, and parents must be ready to have a more hands-on approach to help their children with discipline — especially as they are the only adults enforcing it now,” she says.
Making the wrong decision can be an expensive way to learn a lesson. When choosing an online school, parents should check certain things to ensure that they are getting their money’s worth. “Parents can check the number of learners the school can accommodate and the specific interventions for learners who are not coping,” she says. “They can check how the school encourages peer learning, since online learning is not supposed to encourage anti-social behaviour, and must make learning more fun and with less barriers.”
Parents should also ask how and when the learners’ performance will be tested. This will give the parent an idea on how prepared the school is. Physical activity is an area of concern for some parents, who want to ensure that online learning will not equate to a sedentary life for their children. “Ask about the school’s plan on enhancing physical education, since online learning is by nature not physical, and a good school will consider that.”
When considering costs, parents must understand that not all costs are financial; there may be a different price to pay. “Social deprivation is a concern and making friends in the classroom or the school environment might suffer,” explains Ndlovu. “Parents might have to involve their children in more social clubs, local youth activities or club sport teams.”
Educators might not be as able to notice if a child is struggling socially or psychologically as they would be if they saw the children in class each day, and this means parents must be more aware of any changes in their child. While online learning and the benefits may be appealing, especially for parents who want to raise children who are prepared for the digital future of work, remote education is not the right fit for every child. In a 2021 survey of South African students, academic publisher Juta found that more than 99% of respondents had been learning exclusively online or using a hybrid model, with individual experiences varying greatly. Of the respondents, 33% found the experience to be better than in-person learning, while 40% found the experience worse and less effective.
— Jamaine Krige
Teneo: Uninterrupted education for everyone
Long before Covid-19 even existed, Teneo Online School was strategically established in 2018 as a means to take South African education into the digital sphere, removing physical boundaries and connecting learners with qualified, experienced teachers. With the world returning to some semblance of normality, it is important to ask how the education system should respond to the new world it finds itself in. Jackie Cook is a veteran teacher and Chief Operating Officer at Teneo Online School, who says many parents have realised that a more radical approach may be needed to pandemic- and future-proof their children’s education.
“A school is a structure in which teaching and learning takes place, and we must reframe what is normal. I think we must look at rebuilding schools with digital technology in mind and online learning. Teneo is a ‘normal’ school; we just happen to deliver the curriculum online.”
Teneo is Africa’s number one online school, employing almost 500 teachers to cater to its 9 000 learners. The school offers different schooling options in both English and Afrikaans, examined through three examination boards: the Independent Examinations Board (IEB), the South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute (SACAI) or Pearson Edexcel for the British International Curriculum. All come with both synchronous and asynchronous offerings.
The benefits of remote learning options
Since 2020, online schooling options have moved from the fringes of the educational system and taken centre stage as a viable option for parents and learners. Cook says this is true for a number of reasons: “There’s a lack of trust in physical schools and what they represent, and we’ve seen a lack of accessibility; parents don’t think that their children are getting a good education in a classroom when there are 60 kids in the same space where learning is supposed to take place.”
She adds that online schools offer parents the opportunity to partner with their children and the institution on their learning journeys, and allow parents insight into teaching processes and what is happening in the virtual classroom space: “Parents can see what lessons their children are busy with, and if learners are doing fractions, they can incorporate learning outcomes into their daily interactions.”
Issues around educational accessibility is also an issue; studies show that 67% of South African learners walk to school, with 13% of these children walking more than 30 minutes to get there. “The Teneo commute is a commute from the bedroom to the learning area, wherever that might be,” Cook says.
With more parents choosing to work remotely and unbound to a location, schools like Teneo offer an uninterrupted learning experience for scholars. Families no longer have to make a decision to split their members or uproot children to new schools with every move.
Catering to individuals and their unique needs
For learners with unique needs, online schooling can provide a conducive, tailor-made educational experience. One example is learners with autism or social anxiety, who have more control over their environment when learning remotely. Scholars with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have the benefit of revisiting lessons, which is not available in traditional schools where lessons are not recorded.
Cook explains: “The kids you put in the front row of the class are the kids who struggle to concentrate, as it helps them block out distractions. In an online classroom, every child is sitting in the front row.”
Every learner is unique, and online learning allows scholars to attend classes and engage with the materials on their own terms.
Remote learning: Questions to ask before taking the leap
There are a number of things to consider before making a decision about your child’s education.
The first is whether the school is accredited. “There are so many irresponsible providers out there, and online schools are not always regulated in the same way that brick-and-mortar schools are; some online schools don’t even follow a curriculum. The damage that a wrong choice can make can be devastating to a learner and their educational career.” She says parents should have access to the curriculum and be able to monitor whether it is being followed.
Another question to ask is whether the school is accredited by an examination board, and which one. This is particularly important for grades 10 and 11, and for matric.
Parents should also critically interrogate the promises and claims made by the institution before accepting them as truths: “Don’t be fooled by a 100% pass rate, because this is a statistic and it can be manipulated and changed. Instead of asking what the pass rate is, rather ask what the standards of assessment are, how these standards are set and whether they are being followed.” Parents should also take note of how these assessment standards are aligned to other institutions, and whether these assessments are moderated.
Transparency is another consideration: “Do you have access to what is happening behind the scenes? Do you have eyes on that process? Teneo parents have incredible insight because of our learning management system, which has a parent- observer login that allows them to track what their kids are doing. You can see the assessment that the kids are writing and you can check their marks.”
Parents have a role to play
It is important to understand the fundamental differences between virtual and in-person learning before deciding on online education.
“Things might look different,” Cook explains, “but just because the processes that were traditionally visible are now invisible does not mean that they are not there, playing out behind the scenes.”
Parents should be aware of how the learning management systems and technologies that their children will use work. This way they can assist their children when they have to implement these systems and technologies in their learning journeys.
Cook also says it is important for parents to engage with their children on whether this is the right option for everyone: “Not every child is suited to online schooling, just as the traditional schooling system does not work for every child. As a parent, you don’t have to force it; there is a school for every child.” Different options exist to serve distinct needs and individual contexts. “Appreciate that children are different, but know that different options exist that won’t force your child into a mold that does not fit them.” — Jamaine Krige
Hybrid learning can be an equaliser for an unequal society
When looking at the barriers to education that marginalised learners in South Africa face, learners with disabilities are often on the periphery of the conversation. This according to Sandisiwe Buthelezi, a Learning Consultant and Special Needs Educator in Johannesburg. She says mainstream society often overlooks the limited access that people with disabilities have.
“Our learners with disabilities are barred access to basic necessities and privileges enjoyed by the ‘normal’ learners, and the gap in equality and access to quality education was widened by the introduction of blended and remote learning,” she says, adding that South Africa was undoubtedly underprepared for the transition.
Buthelezi says that in conversations about barriers to blended or remote learning, the focus has always been on the poor — lack of access to devices, reliable internet connectivity and poor power supply. “The challenges faced by these learners are often also true for learners with disabilities, but they are only one aspect of the barriers that exist for these students.”
Even for learners that do have access to the means, resources and technologies needed to engage in online education, many online learning platforms and virtual meeting tools do not cater to people with disabilities in their design. “Screen readers may provide people with visual impairments access information audibly, but designers of websites often carelessly place texts and have a monotonous, synthesised output speech that does not encourage participation.”
People with limited motor and movement impairments have difficulty navigating sites with poor layout and minuscule links and buttons, which means that access to and interaction with online modalities are often solely dependent on a learner’s ability to get external physical help. “People with auditory impairments rely on the visibility of written text and a reliable and accurate translation of spoken word into written texts, and these features are not always developed well enough for such impairments.”
She says learners with intellectual impairment are exposed to different forms of dangers when learning online, as they may be exposed to unfiltered websites, online scams, and the sharing of private information, in addition to being hindered by difficulties in navigability. “Educators and carers rarely know how to ensure their safety and easy access.”
In an ideal world, she says marginalised learners would have limitless access and enjoy the experience of having access to digital support: “It would supplement face-to-face learning instead of replacing it, and would minimise inaccessibility instead of increasing it. Learners would have readily available support to access educational material, and online learning opportunities would encourage collaborative work with peers instead of isolating learners.”
For this to happen, teachers need training and ongoing education on the use of different virtual platforms of learning, and facilitation of access for marginalised learners. Buthelezi says here, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns came as a blessing in disguise: “The Department of Education provided a subsidy to make provision for the digital needs of learners with disabilities. For example, there were learning support programmes, where teachers were given access to data to provide educational material for home. At schools we were provided with finances for printing for learners who do not have internet access. Part of the subsidies were used for assistance devices like motorised wheelchairs, and communication devices were procured for learners who needed them.”
Another barrier to online education is the fact that the government has not yet adjusted the curriculum to digital support, and the much-needed training that is needed for this support to be realised. “Adjustments are also needed in terms of the curriculum, as our curriculum still largely relies on outdated methods of teaching and learning,” she explains. “Everything is dependent on pen and paper, even as technology develops and expands daily; very little room is made for such changes and the many new different forms of sharing information, assessing and learning.”
The benefits of online learning to expand — rather than diminish access — are endless. “Digital learning and support systems enable you to make your learning experience personable; you can adjust the pace and the content according to your abilities and interest,” she says. “You are no longer confined to a space and time, and it allows learners the flexibility of learning anywhere or anytime, and social channels expand opportunities of both learning from peers and collaborating with them in the learning experience.”
If these barriers can be overcome, then hybrid learning modalities have the potential to change the game and level the playing field for marginalised learners, especially those with disabilities. — Jamaine Krige
Hybrid learning: Top tips for student success
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, learners in South Africa and the world have had to adapt quickly to changes in the way educational content is delivered, and in the ways they are expected to engage with it. Hybrid learning, also known as blended learning, combines elements of traditional education as it is taught, in person, at a brick-and-mortar school, with the innovations of online learning and digital support platforms. Educators teach remote and in-person students simultaneously, sometimes with some sitting in the same room while others attend lessons remotely.
Online and hybrid models have adapted and updated the traditional education system — largely unchanged since the first industrial revolution — to cater for students who find themselves at the end of the fourth industrial revolution, and who will likely enter the workforce during the fifth.
Covid-19 has changed the way work is done globally, and as the pandemic enters its third year it is clear that there will be no returning to the way things were — and no reason to feel nostalgic about outdated systems that did not truly cater to societal needs. In this sense, some experts say, the disruption of the traditional schooling system by a novel virus that shut down the world might be the silver lining of the dark Covid cloud, preparing learners of today for the future of work that they will be expected to participate in.
Here are some ways to help learners adapt and thrive in a hybrid learning environment during online engagements:
Stay up to date
While one of the most appealing parts of remote learning is the flexibility, it can be easy to fall behind when schedules are not enforced as strictly as in a physical school environment. Learners should engage with lessons and learning materials in a timeous manner and make an effort to catch up with any missed work as soon as possible.
Preserve your eyes!
Increased screen time leads to increased eye strain, and online classes cause an increased dependency on digital screens. Learners should limit their daily screen time by prioritising and planning their schedules with this in mind. It is also important to step away from the screen every day and engage in offline activities in the “real” world. Here, physical activity is key to ensure that your child still has a well-rounded, healthy life.
Develop off-screen study habits
This technique is helpful to aid in learning and reduce virtual burnout. Turn text files into audio files to rest eyes, write notes by hand to stimulate different parts of the brain, and print out notes so that highlighters and colour pens can be used to spark creativity while learning.
A schedule can help learners keep their studies on track and motivate them on their educational endeavours. Children should be motivated to retain a structure and routine when it comes to waking times, meal times and when to go to bed. They should also be encouraged to change from pyjamas into day clothes and pay attention to personal hygiene, even if they will not be making physical contact with other people.
— Jamaine Krige