Blended learning may suite South Africa best

Columnist Werner Olivier
Columnist Werner Olivier
Image: SUPPLIED

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 schoolchildren 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 dropout rate — even in developed countries. Children simply have no incentive to keep at their studies without peer pressure, a teacher at hand or a structured learning environment.

Pupils need a lot more motivation to continue their studies than is offered with online learning.
Pupils need a lot more motivation to continue their studies than is offered with online learning.
Image: REUTERS / ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

In SA in particular, with socio-economic disparities and related problems, the dropout 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).

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.

More than 80% of public schools are under-resourced. They are ill-equipped to respond to the teaching and learning challenges of the 21st century — let alone the latest demands of the pandemic.

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

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.

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.

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. It has been piloted in the Eastern Cape schools with gratifying results.

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’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.

  • Werner Olivier is a professor in mathematics and director: Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre, Nelson Mandela University. This article was originally published in The Conversation

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