CORONAVIRUS OP-ED

Back to school, Part 2: How innovative teachers embraced online learning during lockdown

By Kimon Phitidis 29 May 2020

It’s going to take a spirit of can-do from teachers, learners and parents to pick up the school year, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Daily News / Christopher Moagi)

A big chunk of the school year has been lost, but some educators have invested in online teaching and their schools will be richer for it. While public schools should be encouraged to invest in building online teaching and learning platforms as Covid-19 peak infection looms, access to data and devices remains a problem.

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Freddy Marubini, head of mathematics at Thengwe High in Tshandama, Limpopo, has had a busy lockdown. He has been at home with his son and two nephews, all Grade 12 learners. His daughters (Grade 6 and Grade 10) lived with an uncle in Pretoria for several years following the death of Freddy’s wife several years ago, but they have come back to live with him this year. “I am a father and a mother to them,” he tells me.

Freddy is used to working long hours. In any given week prior to lockdown, he would teach a full schedule at Thengwe, where he encouraged a six-to-six policy, starting school at 6am and teaching through, with a series of extra classes, to 6pm. On weekends, he offered more extra classes to learners at his school and at another school near his home in Thohoyandou.

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He would often come home on a Saturday evening to find a group of high school pupils waiting for him. He would park his Toyota outside and invite them into his garage, which is equipped with a whiteboard, chairs and other classroom essentials.

That garage classroom has come in handy during lockdown, hosting home lessons for the children in the household.

Nevertheless, Freddy has had difficulty adapting to the slowdown in the pace he had become accustomed too. “When you are an active person and you are locked down like this, when you are doing nothing, when you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, it disturbs a lot. One has to go through that, and I did.”

Each home lesson is delivered twice. First to his class of three matric boys so he can track their progress. The second time he records the lesson — using skills and equipment he has as a wedding photographer. He shares these lessons on the school’s Facebook page, where they are available to learners beyond his school. A lesson on functions has enjoyed 141 shares and 4,600 views.

He hosts teaching sessions on the matric WhatsApp group, posting worksheets, memos, voice notes and links to the Facebook videos while responding to queries and suggestions. He has also travelled to Polokwane several times during lockdown to deliver live maths lessons on Capricorn FM as part of a programme sponsored by Kagiso Trust. These lessons are available as podcasts.

Azhar Rajah, life sciences teacher from Ahmed Timol Secondary in Azaadville, Gauteng, says he has enjoyed lockdown to an extent, doing things he often has little time for: gardening, home repairs and spending time with his young children. His yard houses a neatly made aviary alive with the screeches and calls of breeding pairs of exotic birds. He has spent more time tending to them.

But he, too, has stretched himself to teach remotely through lockdown. He has shared worksheets, past papers and memos on the WhatsApp groups for each grade while directing learners to the school’s natural sciences website and to videos of term two work he has recorded and uploaded to a YouTube channel. A lesson on the central nervous system has enjoyed almost 2,000 views. Azhar has also discovered his radio voice, delivering lessons on-air for Radio Islam once a week. These are also available as podcasts

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Access

Lockdown has brought many challenges to learners wanting to keep up in the school year. One of the biggest is access to online learning.

Freddy delivers a mathematical hypothesis when estimating how many of his learners have been active during lockdown. “One, some of the learners don’t feel the need for education. Two, there are learners who cannot afford a phone. Three, we have learners who have a phone but who have problems with data. The rest are with me.” He estimates that two-thirds of his more than 360 matric maths learners have been working with him through lockdown.

Azhar estimates that most of his matrics are accessing what he posts through the WhatsApp groups. The school is reaching about 80% of the Grade 10s and 11s. He gives learners a chance to complete worksheets and past papers on the topic, and then he hosts a Zoom meeting to revise and answer questions. These meetings are then posted to YouTube for those who missed them to watch later. He estimates that about 20% of his matrics attend the live Zoom meetings. He cites self-discipline and access to devices and data as the lifeblood of online learning.

“Our own conscience knows that we have done what we can do. But what we are doing now (during lockdown) is just a supplementation. When we get back the whole calendar will be adjusted. That will give us time to reteach everything for those that were not able to access online or for those that have not pulled their weight.”

She estimates that more than 90% of her Grade 10-12 learners have been keeping up. Take-up has been lower with the younger grades as the pupils are not as used to the online platform.

This may be the first of a number of lockdowns and the DG Murray Trust has advocated for mobile content provided by public benefit organisations to be zero-rated during lockdown. Access to data is the wedge that further drives the digital and economic divide. While different sites have been zero-rated by different networks, what is needed is blanket zero-rated content for all educational content.

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While Thengwe High and Ahmed Timol Secondary are no- or low-fee public schools, many private schools have continued to teach using online platforms through lockdown.

Olga Motshwanedi-Marimo is the newly appointed principal of Kitsong School, a low-fee (R1,500 per month) private school in Rustenburg, North West, under the administration of the Royal Bafokeng. She has had a busy lockdown, trying to drive a seamless delivery of teaching and learning to the pupils of Kitsong while also attending school with her own foundation phase children on Google Classrooms.

“We are doing e-learning using a system called Moodle. We had to make sure teachers continued through lockdown, we had to deal with data issues but we have tried to keep learners updated every step of the way.”

She estimates that more than 90% of her Grade 10-12 learners have been keeping up. Take-up has been lower with the younger grades as the pupils are not as used to the online platform. Those that have struggled have had problems with data or devices, and their families have been contacted to try to resolve the problem.

Having adopted this blended learning model before lockdown, Kitsong has been in a strong position to carry on teaching through April and May. The Royal Bafokeng has approached each of the networks to zero-rate use of the platform for schools that fall under its administration. Olga is aware that some learners may choose not to return to school on 1 June. She will encourage those pupils to come to school once a week to download the work so that they can then work offline at home.

Uncertain times

Freddy and Azhar have learned a lot about online teaching and about stretching their reach during lockdown. Both are brimming with ideas about how to make things work during the challenging times that are coming with the phased reopening of schools and social distancing protocols that will stretch schools with limited space and limited numbers of teachers. Both are better equipped to teach remotely should South Africa be locked down again.

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When I first met Olga last year she had led the challenging transition of Matale Secondary in Rustenburg, a no-fee public school, from a middle school (Grades 7-9) to a high school (Grade 8-12).

“You have to push for things to happen. Things don’t come easy. You push every day, and every day is different.” Two months after she stepped into the principalship of Kitsong, she was faced with lockdown, but has risen to the challenge with the same spirit.

“Going back to school is a good thing,” she says. “Our life has to work around the virus – the virus is not going to go away anytime soon.”

But these are challenging times for schools. It’s going to take a spirit of can-do from teachers, learners and parents to pick up the school year. They should be encouraged to prepare now for the uncertain times ahead. DM

Kimon Phitidis is a director of Social Innovations, a social investment agency that delivers academic support programmes into public schools. You can read more about these and other teachers in his recently published book Where Light Shines Through: Tales of can-do teachers in South Africa’s no-fee public schools.

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