Online learning must be central to SA’s future education system
Online education must be taken seriously, and decision-making stakeholders in the education system should, at the very least, consider blended models of teaching and learning.
This is the view held by industry experts, speaking about the future of online education or online schooling in the context of SA.
Last year saw technology and education become increasingly integrated as governments across the globe announced COVID-19-induced lockdowns.
With the education old guard turned upside-down, South African learners, like many across the world, had to resort to remote learning to keep up with the academic year.
Even though learners and teachers eventually returned to the brick-and-mortar schools at the end of 2020, the second wave of coronavirus infections and the postponement of school opening have once again fuelled debate about online education in SA.
It has also been reportedthat the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is looking into regulations and policies it can follow to open online public schools.
Moira de Roche, non-executive director of the Institute of IT Professionals SAand chairperson of IFIP International Professional Practice Partnership, says the past year has proven that online education is possible and works.
“Even if the DBE is not ready to commit to online, they should at least consider a hybrid model in the short-term – where much of the learning is done online and learners only go to school from time-to-time.
“It does require a new way of thinking, but this is 2021 and time for us to re-engineer education. It really hasn’t changed much in centuries.
“For example, smart whiteboards have replaced chalk boards, but the teaching methodology is still the same. Education must be built around the learner, with teachers facilitating and guiding rather than teaching (the information is all out there).”
Regarding a complete switch-up from traditional brick-and-mortar schools to online schooling, De Roche says it is possible.
“Imagine not having to turn children away from the nearest or best school because the school is full. Imagine using the best maths teachers to teach all matrics in the country because they are all online.”
Linford Molaodi, lecturer in ICT-enhanced learning at the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education, and executive director of e-learning non-profit TeaSterl, does not think the focus should be on complete substitution of traditional ways of teaching.
“We need to focus the competencies that are needed to be taught and cultivated in schools to help future generations to withstand and adapt to the changes in the society, and the current and future tragic waves of pandemics.
“This may not require complete online schooling but blended ways of teaching and learning. We need to help learners survive different conditions, so that even in the absence of technology they can still thrive and be productive.”
Molaodi is of the view the DBE should purposefully look at the affordability of blended models, guided by competencies for a fast-changing world.
“The DBE strategies should not be guided by technology and its infrastructure – for this continually changes every second of the day – but competencies that will help learners thrive in a fast-changing world.”
Keith Michaels, CEO of Lebone Litho Printers, believes the local education sector cannot entirely switch-off one method of learning and teaching to move to cyber classrooms.
Lebone Litho Printers is a manufacturer of commercial litho sheet-fed, Web-fed and digital printing.
“We need an integrated methodology with traditional and virtual co-existing side-by-side, particularly in a society like South Africa.
“We must take advantage of retired maths and science teachers with their traditional disciplines and practical knowledge, to strengthen the foundational imperative on learners for them to understand the virtual space for an effective outcome online.”
De Roche points out that access to data connectivity remains a stumbling point.
However, she comments that there is an obsession with worrying about the lack of it, rather than applying our minds to fixing it.
“What if instead of giving a learner a classroom to sit in, we gave them data or a laptop instead,” she says. “Also, the savings in travel expenses are substantial, so this can partially fund personal data.
“Sell the land that some of the schools sit on; retrofit others to become online learning centres kitted out with top-notch connectivity, that learners can access as and when they need to. The possibilities are endless.”
For Molaodi, one of the biggest obstacles to progressing on online education is the lack of well-capacitated young leadership that believes in the capabilities of the current and upcoming teachers.
“Teachers need to be given autonomy to master their pedagogy – try new strategies and experiment without being micromanaged and treated as the less knowledgeable.
“Teachers are masters of the trade in their own classrooms and need to be treated as such.”
He adds that the diction of the public voices, including those of teachers, is also among some of the obstacles.
“The education system has lots of computers and tablets which remain unaccounted for. These tools have been and still are packed up in the storerooms of schools, personal homes, districts and local DBE offices without being used for many years.
“It is time that leaders in the education system, especially principals, are trained to allow the young and vibrant university graduates to put the tools into use. Universities produce trailblazers, but due to the rigidity and lack of capable mentors in schools, these young teachers eventually lack the strategies, attitudes and behaviours of the disruptors of the education system.”
Looking at how the pandemic affected the 2020 academic school year, De Roche says in preparation for the future, the DBE must review the methodology but most importantly the curriculum.
“Ask the question: are we teaching learners what they need to know to go out into the world dominated by fourth industrial revolution technologies?
“I am not suggesting that seemingly unnecessary subjects are cut out completely, because I think well-rounded individuals need to know a bit about, for example, geography. But could we change the way we teach geography? How can we use technology to make it more relevant to the learners’ interests, and move away from one-size-fits-all?”
Molaodi suggests involving young teachers and academics to enhance the remote teaching and learning programmes. “These programmes cannot be led by technicians. Technical power is needed to support educational goals, not otherwise.”
In addition, he says the integration of technology in schools, especially those in the rural areas, should never be set aside. “We need to be brave to start somewhere, try out things and keep on improving in an unending cycle. To achieve this, the education system and its leadership require a higher degree of flexibility, adaptability and willingness to trust teachers on the ground.”