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We need to acknowledge the challenges that come with online education

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Covid-19 has revealed the inequities in our education system. While poorer schools’ education has ground to a halt, tuition in some schools did go ahead, thanks to online classes. But for most schools, online tuition is not an option yet.

For centuries literacy was a skill destined only for royalty and priests. But things have changed. Today literacy is a basic human right and one of the most important skills required in modern society.

In the past, literacy meant being able to read and write. Today one needs to be able to use various forms of literacy effectively: from ATMs and PowerPoint lessons to filling in forms. Nowadays, Millennials and Generation Z teach their grandparents how to download the EskomSePush app. Without it, you are literally in the dark. With your smartphone you can congratulate someone without writing a single word, because there are memes, emojis and GIFs for just about everything.

This year, teachers and lecturers had to make a quick paradigm shift about the way they teach. Many teachers and lecturers could not make the leap from their usual teaching methods to online classes. Professors were disempowered because they were ripped from their comfort zones and, as a result, had to be trained in how to work on the online platform.

The classroom has moved to the study. Everyone had to learn to hold meetings on Teams while the computer recorded the minutes. Students and pupils had to shift to Google Classroom overnight. Class discussion has been replaced by WhatsApp groups and control tests had to make way for online multi-choice tests which are marked instantly by a computer – provided the data was entered correctly.

Online tuition, however, comes with many challenges. It requires long hours in front of the computer and lessons must be uploaded well  before the time. By day, you teach from 8am to 8pm. Assessment occurs at night: to download the task of each student, revise it electronically and upload it to the e-learning platform with meaningful comments take hours, sometimes days. Be warned: it is the parents that read the commentary, and they do not hold back. Students can hardly afford a textbook because their funds are slurped up by data.

Covid-19 has revealed the inequities in our education system. While poorer schools’ education has ground to a halt, tuition in some schools did go ahead thanks to online classes. But for most schools, online tuition is not an option yet. Apart from lacking resources and infrastructure, the lockdown has taught us that teachers cannot be replaced in the classroom. Students at Stellenbosch University asked for two weeks’ extension for the June examination because it took longer to understand the work without a lecturer to explain it. School principals tell me that pupils hate the online classes; they miss the social interaction with friends.

Online tuition is the inevitable result of the changing education landscape and offers a way out for overcrowded schools where physical distancing is not possible. But in a country where many schools don’t even have basic facilities like clean water and toilets, it is a bit far-fetched to speak of online tuition as the “new normal now”. 

At best, online classes are a supplementary tuition strategy which brings some relief to overworked teachers. DM

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