Transforming Education Through Distance Learning

“Learning under lockdown for me is much like using immobility as a means for transportation. It just doesn’t make sense.” – Lang, S, 2020

(a quote from “Learning Under Lockdown: Voices of South Africa’s Children”)

As I read the testimonies written by South African teenagers experiencing “learning under lockdown,” I am left feeling utterly helpless at the plight many students have faced. Many of them began lockdown with excitement – every child’s dream of staying at home and just having fun. But the reality is far different. 

The whole world has faced countless tribulations this year. However, with the skills needed for future generations in mind, one could argue that education is one of the most directly affected sectors globally. Research suggests that the losses and gaps in learning will have lasting implications stretching into the labour market and affecting potential future earnings for students. Thus, the need for a bridge between teacher and student is needed now more than ever.

South Africa in particular is faced with a myriad of complex socio-economic issues that hinder the lockdown learning process. Reports by Childline Gauteng found that calls to their hotline increased 67% during the lockdown period, and open cases and counselling sessions increased 400% as compared to the same period in 2019. Furthermore, Research ICT Africa found that internet penetration levels in South Africa are only 50%, and with high data prices, expensive smart devices and low-bandwidth connectivity in certain areas, the reality of social distancing and studying from home becomes less attainable for most.

While it is uncertain how long South Africa will be grappling with these issues, the need for innovative solutions and transformation in the newly coined “distance-learning” space will continue to grow. In many instances, this will mean turning to digital learning channels through accessible platforms and applications. However, these channels are not affordable or accessible for the vast majority of the population, and we must consider alternative means to bridge this gap and enable distance learning. To do this, we should look beyond South Africa for inspiration, to better understand the types of initiatives that are being implemented to enable our future generations’ learning.

Organizations such as the UNICEF & UNESCO, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and Eneza Education played a crucial role in spearheading many initiatives across Africa during the lockdown. In countries like Sierra Leone and Mali, learning during the lockdown took place through devices that were more accessible to children living with fewer means, through utilising solar-power radios that transmitted students’ lessons. In Burkina Faso and Niger lessons were broadcasted on radio and television as well as online. Students in conflict-affected regions in particular were provided with learning kits, solar-powered radios, pens and notebooks. Initiatives in Malawi are looking at expanding this concept in the form of solar-powered tablets, allowing kids to take interactive courses at their own pace. In Kenya where cellphone use is high, students could text a code to receive free learning guides via text and WhatsApp.

The Minister for Education in Burkina Faso Stanislas Ouaro describes the coronavirus pandemic as being “an opportunity for us.” Many initiatives that should have already been implemented to mitigate conflict, displacement and poverty were instead accelerated by the arrival of the pandemic. Furthermore, distance learning has helped to overcome some of the challenges experienced in physical learning like overcrowded classrooms, lack of trained teachers, poor materials, and has even helped to mitigate some deeper gender dynamics in the acquisition of numeracy and literacy.

Although dealing with a much smaller subsegment of South African students, at the Tutroom Foundation we have also adjusted our tutoring approach from having in-person tutors facilitating collaborative learning amongst students, to enabling tutors to provide students with remote academic support during COVID. We now conduct the “The Homework Experience” through a combined use of WhatsApp and a digital platform called Notion, which we use both as a feedback portal and as an internal organizational tool. Students receive exam questions, notes, and send us their homework through WhatsApp, while accessing tutors’ feedback through Notion.

Once tutors record their students’ performance into one database, our internally-designed algorithm comes into play, producing customized performance reports for each student. This allows students to visually track their performance against key topic areas and against their peers’ performance. This is done to encourage peer-to-peer learning, where students can seek help from each other.

Performance reports are subsequently shared with parents, empowering them to have more targeted and impactful conversations with their children on their learning progress. Results are then shared with teachers, allowing them to gain a better understanding of their classes’ performance, while also encouraging them to use the information to improve student participation in the classroom.

Although the effects of the pandemic will be far-reaching and long-lasting, the resilience of students during lockdown should serve to inspire us, as well as the opportunities created from adversity. With distance learning and its various methods here to stay, we as education-based organizations should continue to look for ways to innovate to drive growth in this area, and enable our future generations to conquer against the odds.

“For me, it is rare when forces beyond your control work in your favour. This lockdown was a blessing in disguise. In some way or another it gave me direction.” – Albarudi, L. Learning Under Lockdown: Voices of South Africa’s Children


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