Many well meaning education benefactors and commentators in South Africa have expressed that in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic online self-guided learning could solve some of the current teaching problems and address the educational backlog. What learners need, the reasoning goes, is to get free internet access to educational support materials on offer online.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, self-guided online learning is doomed to fail. Research shows an exceptionally high drop-out rate – even in developed countries. Learners simply have no incentive to keep at their studies without peer pressure, a teacher at hand or a structured learning environment.
In South Africa in particular, with socio-economic disparities and related problems, the drop-out rate would be even higher. More so in key subjects like mathematics and physical science where prior knowledge, conceptual understanding and self-motivation to succeed are critical.
The only answer, in the country’s unequal teaching environment, is a customised version of blended learning. Blended learning integrates computer-assisted online activities with traditional face-to-face teaching (chalk-and-talk).
When used by a trained teacher, this approach can add valuable new dimensions to the learning process. It can allow learners to work at their own pace and teachers to fill content gaps.
Blended learning in South Africa
In many developed countries, blended learning is a well-established practice. It has enabled these countries to adapt to the demands of the current pandemic. Digital remote learning and teaching is backed up by dependable infrastructure and skilled, motivated teachers.
By contrast, the differences between South African schools have been thrown into sharp relief. The binary system of a privileged minority of schools and the rest remains, despite the political changes more than 25 years ago.
The current lockdown has suddenly compelled teachers to adopt predominantly online, blended learning teaching practices. But nearly 90% of all households in South Africa are still without access to the internet at home. Very few schools had adapted to blended learning before lockdown and few schools would be able to adopt it during the lockdown. Therefore the schools that had fewer resources and skills will fall even further behind.
This is especially disappointing since the current cohort of pupils (born after 2000) have long expressed their preference for a blended learning model. Even the recent recognition by the South African government that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are important in the Fourth Industrial Revolution has had little effect on the skills development of teachers, infrastructure or modernisation of resources in schools.
Therefore, in the South African context, mainstream blended learning is not the complete answer. We need to go beyond blended learning.
Customised blended learning model
Since 2002, the Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre in Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth has wrestled with these challenges.
The bad news is that there’s no way to make the teaching and learning of maths and science easy. But we’ve developed a number of interventions that have lifted the twin burdens of poor training and lack of infrastructure from the shoulders of teachers. Skills development linked to the use of user-friendly and interactive digital resources has allowed teachers to focus on attaining a high quality of teaching with subsequent learning successes.
Over the past decade, the centre has experimented with various combinations of online and offline self-directed teaching methods. It has worked specifically on blended learning for mathematics and physical sciences in secondary schools.
The greatest success has been a blended learning system that uses a combination of online and offline interactive resources with pre-installed apps that are aligned with the South African school curriculum. These can be used as a guide for teaching, home-schooling, after-school study and tutoring. We call it techno-blended learning: a structured approach, using mostly offline apps in an integrated way, with the full participation of a trained or experienced adult mentor or guide.
One of the centre’s more recent interventions is a mini personal computer called the GammaTutor™. This’s an offline device pre-loaded with interactive learning material. These resources have been specifically designed for South African school conditions.
The GammaTutor™ software package is primarily intended for teachers: when plugged into any data projector, a TV or digital screen, it doubles as a flexible maths and science teaching assistant in the classroom and a learner support resource for after school hours. It fits in the palm of a hand, requires no data and is navigated by the click of a mouse. Its small size makes the device easy to keep safe and to take where it’s needed.
What needs to be done
It’s well known that major educational challenges exist in schools as a result of the country’s multi-language society – particularly in the teaching and learning of mathematics. The GammaTutor™ application offers mathematics concept explanations in eight indigenous languages.
The device covers the full curriculum for high school maths and physical sciences, presented in video, PDF or animated PowerPoint format – along with glossaries, exam revision support, translations from English into indigenous languages and many additional teaching support materials. It can be used for interactive teaching online and remotely.
The response from teachers, learners and stakeholders to this approach of teaching and learning has been overwhelmingly positive. Where these interventions have been applied, in pilot schools in the Eastern Cape province, the results have been gratifying. Marks have improved significantly and successful learners have been able to progress to university.
The new urgency for remote teaching caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for the country to adopt policies to accelerate blending learning practices among teachers and learners. The Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre offers lessons learned through more than a decade of research.