Op-Ed

Online education during the pandemic: The challenges and opportunities

By David Reiersgord 3 April 2020

There are enormous challenges that must be considered when determining how learners access content online, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Like other sectors of society, South Africa’s education system is unequal. Some schools are funded, others aren’t. Too many schools can’t move curricula online, because there’s no, or not enough, infrastructure to do so.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, educational institutions face an unprecedented situation. Unable to meet in classrooms, learners and teachers have had to react to shifting circumstances and formulate strategies for alternatives such as online learning. In South Africa, moving courses online presents learners and teachers with challenges and opportunities.

Like other sectors of society, South Africa’s education system is unequal. Some schools are funded, others aren’t. Too many schools can’t move curricula online, because there’s no, or not enough, infrastructure to do so. If schools can move courses online, many learners won’t have the ability to sustainably access them because they lack laptops, or because the costs of data are too high. The current necessity for a shift towards online learning reminds us that although we live in the same country, we don’t share the same resources.

Central to online learning is learners’ ability to access course content. However, there’s an additional and overlooked factor to keep in mind. Teachers also need to ensure course content is accessible. Moving curricula online means negotiating learners’ ability to access course content in relation to the accessibility of that content.

Though online education may provide flexibility to learners and teachers, there are challenges involved that have the potential to exclude learners and constrain teachers. One challenge is recreating the dynamics of face-to-face instruction. The relationship between a learner and their teacher is crucial for learner success, because teachers facilitate how and why learners engage with course content. Removing this interaction on such a large scale is unprecedented in South Africa and will impact how teachers teach and how learners learn in a variety of ways.  

Classroom sizes and teacher-to-learner ratios play a role in determining teacher and learner interaction. According to the 2019 Department of Education’s Action Plan, in 2013, 35% of learners in public schools attended classes with more than 45 learners. In 2019, the average teacher-to-learner ratio was roughly 1:30. To be fair, there are important differences between average class sizes and average teacher-to-learner ratios. The former provides an average number of all learners divided by all classes while the latter provides the average ratio of all learners and all teachers in a school. Nonetheless, what these figures suggest is that many teachers in South Africa have classrooms that are too large to function as conducive learning environments.

Having to provide 30 or more learners with sufficient instruction, attention and feedback online, in the middle of a term, has the potential to seriously reduce the kind of attention learners require. Adjusting this element will constrain teacher and learner interaction and inevitably lead to learners who require more attention-getting left behind by circumstances beyond their control.

An additional challenge is the infrastructure required to facilitate courses online and the high costs associated with accessing content. To do so, learners need to have access to the right equipment, whether it is a smartphone or a laptop. They also need to purchase enough data. In rural areas where classroom sizes and teacher-to-learner ratios tend to be higher, there’s reduced capacity for learners to access content online and even fewer resources to access it beyond a smartphone, like an internet cafe. Smartphone technology may be more ubiquitous than it was a decade ago, but the ability for South Africans to unlock its potential remains unequal.

While there are challenges for educators and learners accessing content online, there are also opportunities for thinking beyond the conventions of how classes are typically facilitated to make course content more accessible. At the university level, for instance, too many classes are administered through PowerPoint and lectures. These techniques can be useful for learning, especially in large classrooms. However, they don’t promote accessibility and don’t necessarily teach learners habits geared towards engaging with course content through contemplation, interaction and discussion.

One opportunity presented by moving curricula online is revisiting course content. Teaching online is different than in a classroom, which means teachers need to think critically about what content is included and excluded when moving courses online. Redesigning a course’s syllabus to suit online learning platforms afford teachers an opportunity to revisit the learning outcomes of their course and review whether all of the content aligns with them.

A second opportunity is related to the kinds of platforms made available through technology. Through online platforms, learners no longer need to learn exclusively through lectures. Instead, teachers have the potential to hold synchronised meetings with smaller groups of learners to provide adequate feedback; to create podcasts that require less data download; they can record videos of their lectures, so learners can access content more than once; or they can form discussion groups to promote peer-to-peer learning and move beyond the hierarchy of the teacher-learner relationship. These opportunities (and there are others) hold significant potential for expanding how learners learn in a technology-driven world, both online and especially in the classroom.

It remains to be seen whether online learning can be a viable educational alternative in South Africa. It may not be, even though politicians love to discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There are enormous challenges that must be considered when determining how learners access content online. There are also opportunities for thinking beyond conventional teaching methods to consider how course content can be more accessible. Whatever the case may be, this period will offer much to learn about the challenges and opportunities related to education in South Africa. DM

David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

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