South Africa

TV CLASSROOMS

How the national broadcaster can help alleviate SA’s education crisis

Veteran physics, maths and chemistry teacher William Smith. (Screenshot: YouTube)

South Africa’s educational system is in deep crisis due to the lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While it may be too deep into this year to make full use of all the country’s broadcast resources to substantially help the educational system, a well-thought-through plan could have a revolutionary impact on delivering high-quality education to all learners.

More than a half-century ago when I was in fifth grade in an ordinary public elementary school in the US, distance teaching via television became the next big thing. The new availability of ultra-high frequency (UHF) television broadcast band, essentially ring-fenced from the temptations of commercial broadcasting, had made this possible.

On one day I especially remember, our school’s teachers trooped several classes from the same grade into the school’s multipurpose auditorium to watch televised lessons shown on several black and white television screens placed around the room, all tuned to the same channel. Our state education department had, as was the case with a number of other state governments, begun a movement towards injecting educational television right into classrooms. This was done, at least in part, to respond to the need to keep up with the growing crush of students as a result of the now-cresting baby boom. But there was also the desire to provide access to a rapidly growing body of information now deemed necessary to teach to students – ranging from new discoveries in biology to developments in the nascent Space Age.

In the particular case as I remember it, the broadcast instructor was giving a lesson on English and he had started off with a question. Obviously it was a rhetorical one since nobody could possibly answer him directly from all over the state of Maryland. This gray man in a gray suit on that grayish black and white screen stood in front of a light gray chalkboard and wrote the word: “etymology”. He asked if anybody knew what it meant. Perhaps a handful of fifth-grade students across the whole state of Maryland did. My contribution to our teacher monitors was to say to one of them, in fifth grade-style sotto voce: “It’s the study of insects!” Oops. That discipline actually was “entomology;” whereas “etymology”, of course, is the study of the origins of words through history and the languages they have been inherited from.

My excuse was I had become an avid butterfly and moth collector with all the paraphernalia that went with such a hobby, the nets, special pins, display boxes, guide books, and those infamous killing jars, all of this stuff lodged under my bed. But I never confused the meanings of the two words (as well as the fact that the suffix “-ology” meant the study of something), after that crushing moment. Pretty much everything, even acute embarrassment can become a teachable moment if you let it become so.

The rest of the lesson was unremarkable in the extreme, as were most of the lessons that followed on those screens that year. And none of those programmes were in the same universe of interesting as any regular evening’s television shows popular then, Gilligan’s Island, Leave It to Beaver, Men in Space, even the regular network evening newscasts. This pointed to the fundamental problem with television learning when it began, in contrast to commercial television. That educational TV was BORING. Very boring. Sleep-inducing boring. Probably even for the teachers monitoring the classes.

Eventually, a majority of US school districts began moving away from those television classrooms, if for no other reason than most of those classes were more boring than even a particularly dull, but live in the room, teacher. Years later, I did note, however, that at my university, they were still teaching their required introductory mathematics course via televised lectures, but they had hundreds, maybe thousands of students taking the class each year at the same time and they probably didn’t have sufficient teaching assistants (MA students working for their own tuition) to cover the material – and those video lectures were actually well done. The key concepts were crisply introduced, and the logical sequence of information was clear. It turns out that the course lectures were pre-recorded and had been made some years earlier – but, still, they were delivered by a man in love with maths and who wanted others to love it too.

More generally, though, at the elementary and secondary levels, individual interactions via computers became much more useful and important in teaching. Students were already used to testing with multiple choice score sheets marked by machines and the use of computer-aided teaching simply slotted into the ongoing style of things.

Hundreds of thousands of people completed degrees and diplomas in almost every field through Unisa, especially individuals who had to work full-time or who lived in isolated communities located far from traditional universities – or were locked up as political prisoners. At last count, more than 400,000 individuals worldwide are enrolled in Unisa courses.

Now, of course, the use of computers, purpose-designed “educational software”, and the vast resources of the internet are increasingly integrated into teaching in the US (and elsewhere) from preschool onward. The wealth of text, aural, video, passive and interactive material is almost uncountable. The biggest problems for teachers and students have become how to identify and make use of the really good stuff from all the foolish or worse material. Learning how to identify valuable material from fakery is a key learning skill now.

But as a corollary to this, a learner who does not have access to a PC or a laptop at home is at a real, tangible disadvantage in successfully accomplishing many school assignments. Any reader with schoolgoing children these days has experienced this, especially after watching presentations, projects, animations and the rest prepared by their children (or, perhaps, as parents having to get right in there with their children when they suddenly learn a project is due at 8am the next day – and it is now past dinner on the night before).

Just as in many other countries, schools across South Africa – private as well as the well-resourced public ones – make increasing use of these tools and materials. And teachers are more and more adept at designing their teaching to integrate such materials into their actual classroom activities and home assignments. (In my own home, I have watched how my music specialist teacher spouse has done just this with assignments for her pupils in a Gauteng Department of Education public school.) The challenge comes in when a learner (or the school itself) has no computer or tablet, or electricity, internet connectivity, or even the funds to secure the necessary data bundles to do the work. For many South Africans, sadly, this is still a steep, daunting obstacle, both at home and at school.

Well before Covid-19, many universities around the world were increasingly moving towards offering courses fully or partially online, sometimes paired with in-residence modules. You could even take high school-level courses, and general education programmes for adult learning in all manner of subjects through universities or consortia such as Coursera.

One irony, of course, is that many for years, South Africa was something of a pace-setter in distance learning, once the University of South Africa (Unisa) went deeply into that approach by the mid-20th century. Hundreds of thousands of people completed degrees and diplomas in almost every field through Unisa, especially individuals who had to work full-time or who lived in isolated communities located far from traditional universities – or were locked up as political prisoners. At last count, more than 400,000 individuals worldwide are enrolled in Unisa courses.

While most people in South Africa still may not yet have a computer or internet connectivity in their homes, most of the country does have access to a television. Moreover, these lessons should have been provided over the public broadcaster’s radio channels as well.

Now, of course, the onset of Covid-19 has thoroughly upset apple-carts everywhere where educational programmes are concerned. Many schools – from the first grades through to the final year – have been forced to make quick, drastic adjustments to their teaching programmes and the way they relate to learners. Many teachers found this effort challenging and exciting, but more time-consuming than normal teaching, as they worked to learn how to make use of resources and guide learners (and their parents) to carry on with learning despite the country’s physical circumstances.

At the university level, instructors struggled to reconfigure their lectures to fit the more intimate settings through applications like YouTube or Facebook, and to shift tutorials into interactive online sessions. (If such arrangements continue into the new school year, perhaps a major problem may be a kind of student and parent rebellion over high university costs when the totality of a university experience consists of a student sitting at the kitchen table all day, peering at the computer.)

In South Africa, despite the country’s significant experience with distance learning, at the primary and secondary school levels, there is now a sudden hunt for useful interactive tools such as “Purple Mash” that allows teachers to assign study activities in accord with the national curriculum, and to have each learner participate individually. There has been significant creativity taking place on the part of many teachers, in making use of such tools.

But again, this has depended on access to a computer, connectivity, electricity, and data. Easy enough for the learners and teachers of a fancy private school or at some of the better-endowed public ones, but it becomes a huge hill to surmount for a poor, isolated rural family and the school their children attend.

Once the Covid-19 shutdown came into being, the Department of Basic Education wrestled with trying to determine when and how public schools should reopen, and what ground rules might apply with regard to anti-viral hygiene, social distancing, other physical contact, and the actual makeup of the rest of the school year’s schedule and course content. But one big part of the country has been left out almost entirely in this picture. And this lacunae is a huge failure of imagination and will.

Checking the television schedules, it seems that on any given day, about two hours are devoted to teaching support for the South African curriculum. And this is over the full slate of SABC free-to-air channels. Do the people in charge over in Auckland Park not realise there is a national educational catastrophe in the making taking place? Millions of South African children are not in school now and many of those are largely fending for themselves in coping with material they are supposed to be learning, presumably with their parents’ or guardians’ help. (I don’t believe I could easily gear up to teach a child the quadratic formula, or the best proof of Pythagoras’s famous theorem, let alone all the other stuff that goes into a high schooler’s curriculum. It’s been a long time since I paid much attention to algebra and geometry, and even the teaching methodologies are different from my school years. I wonder if a manual labourer could do better with his children.)

There is an almost unending reserve of really good documentaries in the sciences, ecology, environmental studies, history, and geography – and even in literature and the arts.

What should have happened, however, is actually rather simple. The government should have declared a national educational emergency and made the free-to-air television channels responsible for putting the best teachers in the country on air for each grade and every subject (and probably in a bunch of indigenous languages as well) every single day.

While most people in South Africa still may not yet have a computer or internet connectivity in their homes, most of the country does have access to a television. Moreover, these lessons should have been provided over the public broadcaster’s radio channels as well. They could also have reached out to the country’s community radio stations – there are over 200 – and they could have been recruited into this effort as well. There should be no place in this country where there is a school where learners could not get instruction from really good teachers in the subjects they must study via television or radio broadcasts. The country, after all, follows a unified national curriculum and so really good teachers in a subject should be able to rise to this challenge, with a little guidance.

I am old enough to remember that South Africa’s national broadcaster used to air some well-done mathematics lessons, delivered by local teacher William Smith, to help learners master the material. Smith, by the way, received national honours for his work in this regard, but I haven’t seen his lessons aired for some years now. (Just by the way, Smith’s father was the ichthyologist who first, famously described the coelacanth, the living fossil, back in the 1930s.) Oh, and what has happened to all those old episodes of Takalani Sesame? As far as I can determine, the last time they were aired was some five years ago, although a new series of the show was supposed to begin in June this year, but that was before Covid. Still, it is a perfect material for all those Grade R and even earlier learners who are now not in their respective pre-school programmes. Bring it back!

Moreover, building broadcast lessons now would not have to be like my introduction to televised teaching. There is an almost unending reserve of really good documentaries in the sciences, ecology, environmental studies, history, and geography – and even in literature and the arts. In a national emergency such as exists now, together with the national broadcaster, the national department of primary education could have risen to the challenge of determining which parts of which episodes from those documentaries on the BBC, the National Geographic Channel and other pay-for-view channels might supplement teaching effectively and asked for the temporary rights to broadcast them on a limited use basis. Did anybody even bother to ask?

Renowned South African author Fred Khumalo has taken to reading a book a day for children in both English and a local language. You can watch it over YouTube, but this really should be something the national broadcaster is doing with many authors in the country’s various languages, both on television and radio, with setworks and supplementary works. The broadcaster should also have hunted down film and video versions of plays that are setworks (they do exist) and broadcast those as well. And all of this could certainly supplant some of the atrocious dreck and endless reruns broadcast even now, despite the urgency to participate in rescuing what can still be salvaged in this year’s educational effort.

But even if it is very late in the game to implement such steps for this year’s educational needs, the crisis is an excellent springboard to launch a real rethink of how the resources of radio and television (and the internet) can be applied to education for the future. It isn’t just something that should be done because of a crisis, but the crisis should give the country the impetus to undertake the effort to bring the nation’s broadcasters into a real partnership with the educational needs of the country. 

There will always be another major crisis, you can bet on it. Like Winston Churchill, and then US politician and political strategist Rahm Emanuel said after him, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” DM

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