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Embracing remote teaching and learning: teachers respond to the COVID-19-induced national lockdown in South Africa

| October 30, 2020 | 0 Comments


On 16 March 2020, the morning after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first COVID-19 address to the nation, during which he informed us that schools would be closing that week, many teachers like me were hastily rushing about, putting together photocopied worksheets, notes and learning schedules, updating our home internet packages and stocking up on toilet paper and essentials – all while preparing ourselves for something that we had never done before and knew precious little about: ‘remote’ digital teaching.

Overnight, schools with sufficient access to the right resources embarked on this journey against the backdrop of a national emergency and global health pandemic, with all of the attending uncertainty and anxiety. Three-and-a-half weeks of remote learning lay ahead for those schools that had 17 school days remaining before the Easter holidays.

I think it’s safe to say that most independent schools had some kind of online learning presence or capability before the lockdown, but over the first few weeks of remote learning everything changed. Every teacher had to confront the reality of using online or remote methods to continue delivering curriculum to our learners. In early March of this year, I had never before heard of Zoom, I barely knew what Microsoft Teams was, and I had never used Google Forms for anything.

One month later, I was familiar with multiple video conferencing platforms (such as Webex, Skype or Teams) and confidently assessing learners’ written work and replying to them using a PDF reader, while engaging almost daily on learning platforms and WhatsApp groups. My favourite method was to send my Grade 12 business studies class carefully scripted WhatsApp voicenote summaries with which to complement their readings, written summaries and worksheets.

The lockdown changed my teaching life

As mentioned, I had never used a tool like Google Forms before, but with some extra home time on my hands and having been forced to get to know how to use it, I set a multiple choice online revision quiz, even selecting it to be marked automatically and the data transferred to a spreadsheet. Now I’m convinced this is a fantastic educational tool – why had I not tried this long ago? Possibly because there never seemed to be enough hours in the day with all an educator’s responsibilities, lesson preparation, assessments, mentoring, parents’ evenings, staff and cluster meetings, deadlines and more deadlines.

It took a national lockdown to slow me down long enough. So, for this article, I drew up a questionnaire using the same online Forms method, to survey a few of my colleagues in education about their remote learning experiences. Colleagues and friends forwarded the questions to their networks and within days I had received 55 completed surveys from educators at 35 different schools in five provinces. This is what I found out.

Two thirds of teachers surveyed (67%) felt that their attitude towards the prospect of remote learning was positive or extremely positive, while at least a quarter of teachers (25%) said they were ‘neutral’ about it. By the end of the first three to four weeks, the percentage who felt positive or extremely positive about remote learning had jumped to 80%, with approximately 16% saying they were ‘neutral’ about it. A small minority declared ‘unenthusiastic’ as their response. Almost 90% of educators said they felt that their experience of remote teaching had ‘improved’ them as educators.

The pie charts below show the breakdowns, automatically generated by Google Forms.

By far the two most popular educational platforms used by the schools represented in this survey were Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. Both of these apps offer useful and user-friendly environments in which to post notices, prompt discussions, upload documents, set assignments and teach remotely through audio/video conferencing. Other online platforms cited were Moodle and Seesaw, while Siyavula – a well-known online mathematics and science platform – was also mentioned for its practical subject-specific framework.

Educators and schools used multiple methods simultaneously. All of the following methods were cited by at least 26 out of the 55 respondents, with the percentage of educators in parentheses:

• posting work files on online group platforms (95%)
• video conferencing/video classes (78%)
• YouTube videos (existing or created) (69%)
• e-mails (66%)
• WhatsApp texts (64%)
• preprinted notes or worksheets (62%)
• textbooks (55%)
• audio/voicenotes (47%)

Besides these, a number of other methods were also employed by some teachers, including group audio calls, SMSs, blogs and phone calls. For video conferencing, teachers indicated they had used Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Classroom or Hangouts, Skype and WhatsApp video.

Online instruction good for planning and streamlining lessons

Because of the sudden arrival of the lockdown, some schools did not necessarily have a coherent, pre-existing remote learning strategy in place. But where this existed, learners benefited. Lawrence Bete, who teaches mathematics at Roedean School (SA), says that the school’s use of a single platform where all teachers’ work and learning materials were posted worked very well for them. He adds that ‘pupils appreciated having a schedule of what work would be covered for each day in advance. This helped them to plan their day and those who wanted to work ahead could do so.’ Carike de Swardt, a music teacher at Michaelhouse, was also reminded that students benefit from teachers’ ability to plan better for remote learning. ‘Learners are eager, but need guidance and support,’ she says. ‘Less is more – organisation and feedback are especially important.

That dreadful digital divide

While there has been constant talk of ‘flattening the curve’ of coronavirus infection rates, teachers all over the world have been experiencing another curve – a steep learning curve for teaching remotely.1 ‘Until lockdown, I didn’t know about the various options. Out of necessity, I was able to adapt and learn quickly,’ says Brett Hewson of The Training Academy. ‘I had to learn quickly – including making mistakes,’ says Suzette Truter of Loreto Convent.

Truter adds that while some of her learners were enthusiastic, others had not been online. She heard complaints of ‘inaccessibility to internet and data, and lack of devices’. ‘Inequalities across the board will have to be addressed. Teachers remain the primary source for education,’ she says.

A number of other educators pointed to the inequality of internet access. This is certainly a feature of the South African educational landscape, with possibly over 70% of learners in the country reported to be without basic connectivity.2 In this context, remote online learning is the domain of a privileged few. To reach more pupils in lockdown, the Department of Basic Education has arranged for broadcast support, using television and radio stations as a means to reach the nation’s pupils with subject lessons, particularly for Grade 12 students. But even within the independent schools’ community, not all learners have access to internet connectivity.

In homes that do have internet access, connectivity ranges from broadband uncapped access to limited monthly or pay-asyou-go data packages with slow or unreliable access, prone to run out at inconvenient times, or experience bandwidth throttle in peak times of high usage. Some learners might have access via smartphones, but this is not always adequate for all learning tasks, such as typing out a long essay. In addition, there isn’t necessarily technical support available for learners from home. With regard to video conferencing, there is often a lag, making it difficult to reach all learners, especially with demonstrations or practical lessons.

Eugene Stolk of St Stithians Boys’ College explains that ‘anything that required large upload or download proved problematic [for us] for obvious reasons. So, we avoided transferring lots of video or large data files.’ He adds: ‘Socially, sadly the gap between those who can do this well, and those who have no access, will only increase the disparity of education in society.’

Develop your patience alongside your expertise

Stolk also mentions the importance of the traditional face-toface school context. ‘The drawback is the lack of interactions that boys need to develop their sense of self in the school.’

This sentiment is also expressed by Gail Jacobs of Brescia House School, who feels her students still need to ‘connect with teachers and receive help with time management and organisation, since they are so used to teachers, timetables and bells managing their days for them. They need to be able to ask questions and seek help when needed.’ Susan van Blerk of Maris Stella School agrees, saying that despite her learners’ love of technology, they still wanted to be at school with their teachers. Many other survey respondents pointed out how the social and emotional aspects of learning in a physical school environment have been lost.

Interestingly, another surveyed teacher responded thus: ‘My time is more focused on the creation of educational content than on discipline and other issues. I feel that I can communicate just as effectively [as I would do in person], without needing to repeat myself several times a day to different classes. I can find, create and share resources, and I know the learners can access it as many times as they need until they understand the work. A small thing such as the comfort of home (and the cup of tea in your hand while you work) has also made me more motivated. Whether the learners engage and make use of it, though, is the real issue, sadly.’

Local and international media reports back up many of these insights. For example, American teacher Sarah Giddings has made the point that ‘while there are lots of exceptional teachers, not all of them are ready to move their instruction online. Online lessons need to have more clearly written-out themes and directions for students.’3

Anne Solomon of St Patrick’s College bears this out, saying that she also feels it took a very long time to prepare for online lessons, adding it ‘was very challenging to put down on paper what one would normally execute live in the classroom – in general, it takes longer to complete a section of work’.

For many learners, school really is a safe space. Adjusting to the need for setting new parameters becomes essential for teachers – for example, the need for boundaries of time – because learners sometimes sent text messages to teachers about work-related questions at late hours.

Share your reflections

To conclude, remote learning has presented many new challenges but also some exciting opportunities for teachers and education in South Africa. As you carry on learning alongside your colleagues, consider the following reflections created in the spirit of sharing by Eugene Stolk:

• Remote or online teaching can’t follow the same timetable, lesson structure and assessment practice as classroom teaching.

• Learning won’t be instant

• Your social media message should be: ‘We are managing a crisis for now and moving into teaching online.’

• Don’t expect deadlines to be the same, or students with barriers to learning to cope, or the economics of family wealth not to play a massive part in this.

• Rethink the value of summative assessments, ‘preliminaries’ or examinations.

• Upskill yourself and your staff, almost daily, with honest deep feedback and skill checks.

• Harness the power of teacher and parent collaboration of constant feedback to shortcut the need for a report card.

• Find new ways to get learners motivated enough to handle this all, for an ongoing time.

• Be mindful that your colleagues, students and parents are just barely keeping their own families somewhat safe, healthy and calm in a crazy world, whilst still trying to get work out of learners and trying to be at the very cutting edge of education.

• Recognise that the desire to be back in the classroom is because you love your students and your work. This doesn’t have to be any less true online.

• In the future, prospective teachers will need to prove they can work remotely, prior to securing the post.

• What about teachers’ access to high-speed internet? This is not just a generational thing – every household must make budget allocations and teachers themselves do not all run uncapped internet connections at home. Van Blerk emphasised this point. She suggests that teachers should keep their own computer equipment up to date and get the best possible Wi-Fi available. I realised my own laptop is about seven or eight years old, and although it’s served me well, I might be needing an updated model. How many independent schools have technology allowances for teachers? Will this become a necessity in future?

Casey Pullen, a mathematics teacher at Assumption Convent School, sums up what many teachers have come to understand. ‘We underestimate the learners,’ she says, ‘and this process has shown us that we should challenge the learners more and they will cope. We need to move with the times and involve technology more with teaching.’


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Category: Spring 2020

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