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Learning in the Time of COVID

The impact of the pandemic has been devastating on South Africa’s already failing education system, with the poorest of the poor once again bearing the brunt of historical inequality and ongoing exclusion

Most of us approached the end of last year with hope for some reprieve from the horrors of 2020, but COVID-19 had other plans. The second wave hit us with unexpected speed and brutality as we entered the New Year well and truly in the eye of the storm. While some of us lamented the reinstatement of tougher lockdown restrictions and the inconvenience of not being able to enjoy a glass of wine with friends or changing our kids’ Matric Rage plans, many others were struggling to hold onto their jobs or feed their families. “We are all in the same boat” is a phrase often heard in conversations lately. However, the truth is that we are all actually in very different boats, trying to weather the same relentless storm – some in the flimsiest vessels, barely able to stay afloat. 

According to recent statistics, 20 million South Africans do not have access to safe water supplies or adequate sanitation – during the hard lockdown last year, water tanks had to be deployed to some areas in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. For millions of people living in informal settlements, social distancing is also virtually impossible, leaving these vulnerable communities even more at risk. The pandemic has truly highlighted and exposed the disparities and inequities of our imbalanced and unsustainable social systems.

As an organisation focussing on Skills Development and learnerships (predominantly for people with disabilities), Progression works with some of the most disadvantaged citizens of our country on a daily basis. In a recent survey conducted with a sample of our learners to assess the impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, more than 60% of the individuals questioned reported money and job issues being their greatest challenge right now. Topping the list was the need for permanent employment and a sustainable income.  According to Statistics South Africa, 2.2 million jobs were lost during the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the economy shutting down during the lockdown period, driving many people into dire circumstances and having to resort to desperate measures in order to survive. One survey respondent confessed, “I had to adapt to the situation and sell cigarettes on the black market to cover for my family.”

Sadly, Covid-19 has also pushed South Africa’s already fragile education system to new record lows and (as with the economic and health impacts) those with the greatest level of disadvantage have been affected the most. The virus has undoubtedly forced us to interrogate many of our long-established structures and, in particular, raises questions regarding the way we teach and learn. 

However, while some schools and training institutions have migrated to online learning, many learners simply don’t have access to the electronic and data resources required to participate. 

The burning question for us at Progression during this time has been, “How do we continue to do what we do in terms of upskilling and trying to transform the lives of our learners?” The education system in South Africa, haunted by the legacy of apartheid, remains entirely unequal and most of Progression’s learners, like many millions of others in the country, come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our recent survey revealed that more than 65% of the learners who participated do not have access to a computer at home, once again highlighting the enormous digital divide that still exists. 

The past year has confirmed that technology can no longer be regarded as a luxury but is now a vital element in the field of education. However, the cost of data in South Africa ranks amongst the highest in Africa and in addition, the cost per megabyte is highest for the poor, who can’t afford bulk data packages. This makes it difficult for learners to access information, even on a mobile phone. Recently, a number of educational websites were zero rated and students were able to access these sites for free.  Continuing and extending this concept to include as many resources and platforms as possible would greatly enhance access and connectivity for learners that have been excluded thus far.

Apart from device and data access issues, other challenges include the social and psychological aspects associated with online learning. Coupled with lockdown restrictions, the lack of physical and social interaction inherent in remote learning can leave learners feeling detached, isolated and unmotivated. According to Progression’s survey, more than 53% of learners reported that the pandemic and lockdown have had a significant impact on their mental health. One of the learners interviewed stated, “It was scary and lonely.” Another interviewee recounted, “I felt like the world was coming to an end. I can say I was seriously depressed”. The additional stress and anxiety related to training and online learning may further affect the psychological wellbeing of learners, many of whom have already been diagnosed with psychiatric conditions, like depression. 

Other difficulties associated with online learning include lack of IT skills in learners and teachers, distraction by social media as well as lack of physical/outdoor activity. Learners also often report brain fatigue, headaches and eye related problems due to the long duration of online classes. Many of these challenges can be overcome by ensuring skills training for learners and teachers, designing shorter lessons and including regular comfort breaks. Incorporating a variety of resources and tools like videos, virtual whiteboards, music, quizzes, social media links, etc. can keep learners interested and engaged during lessons. 

In light of the economic and social challenges in South Africa, Progression has found that a blended learning approach (which combines online and face-to-face methods) is the most suitable solution. We are also providing our learners with devices as part of their programmes and opting for other methods of accessing learning material, which do not require data usage. This approach allows flexibility and provides learners with a number of ways to access training, taking into account their circumstances and needs. Blended learning enables a level of social interaction and also allows for greater learner-teacher contact, providing much-needed guidance and support to learners and ensuring a more effective and rewarding learning experience.

We all long for a “return to normal” of the way things were before the arrival of the virus but if anything, the pandemic has exposed the fact that our unequal world prior to Covid-19 was far from “normal”. Indeed, it is the very illusion of this normality that has caused many of the pandemic-related difficulties being experienced today. The hope is that we will take the many lessons from this crisis and use this pivotal period in our history to change the status quo and create a better life for each and every one of us. DM


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