Learners in at Somerset College

The Case for In-Person Education

The effects of COVID-19 and its associated restrictions have hugely disrupted life as we knew it. Many parents concerned about the quality of education being impacted by on-again, off-again public schooling, have started looking at online options for their children. The challenges are indeed enormous but perhaps what is missing from the online vs on-campus schooling debate is the case for in-person education.

The statistics available are certainly cause for concern. According to the Department of Basic Education, the overall national picture is that between 50% and 75% of contact time was lost in 2020. Overall, some public school learners were 75% to 100% behind where they would otherwise have been. An estimated half a million more children have dropped out of school since the pandemic began.

Even in well-resourced schools, learning outcomes vary widely depending on the approach taken during the lockdown periods caused by the coronavirus. Those that incorporate peer interaction or small group activities into synchronous online courses supported by regular, valid assessment and feedback, see the best results.

These well-resourced schools have seen an increase in digital proficiency among teachers and students. The utilisation of online educational resources and tools has enriched the educational mix and resource pool, and will likely be an enduring state.

Benefits of in-person education

What challenges have arisen for students?

As the long-term consequences are not yet known, it is difficult to say which age group has been worst affected. The answer also depends very much on socio-economic and home-life conditions, but social isolation has emerged as a strong predictor of poor physical, as well as mental, health.

While all children need peer interaction for healthy development, adolescents are perhaps most acutely in need of this. Aside from the academic challenges mentioned above, rates of depression and anxiety amongst adolescents surged as a result of their being denied daily contact with their peers.

Unfortunately video calls (Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc) are a poor substitute for in-person interactions because the crucial non-verbal cues (tone and pitch of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, and body language) upon which we rely for connection and accurate comprehension, are compromised.

This means that our brains, especially the occipital and temporal lobes, which make up about 40% of the brain, must work harder to process information, which can lead to fatigue and states of stress that detract from cognition and wellbeing.

Optimal time for a Zoom meeting or class is 20-30 minutes, but class length routinely exceeds this in online school offerings. Continuously seeing oneself on the screen throughout the day leads to stress, especially in teenagers who are often preoccupied with self-image.

Social and emotional learning (the process whereby students learn to process their emotions and express them constructively to their peers) is curtailed by online learning. Student academic outcomes are also hurt by online schooling, although the negative impact can be reduced by incorporating peer interaction or small group activities into synchronous online courses.

Online learning removes the need for movement between classes, the choice of activities in a school environment, social interaction and check-ins with peers that give teenagers the boost of dopamine they need to maintain wellness. Lower levels of sunlight are associated with impaired cognitive states and students studying remotely from home are likely to receive significantly less sunlight than those visiting campus.

There is evidence of a link between visual impairment and diagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which is a significant barrier to learning and academic progress and wellbeing. For every 20 minutes spent on a device, a child needs a short break, to adjust their gaze and to blink in order to lubricate their eyes to combat eye damage and burnout. Online learning programmes generally do not incorporate this need and it is mostly not possible for a parent to monitor and enforce.

It is also difficult for a student to filter background noise and focus on the teacher’s voice when all student contributions are as loud as each other, as they are received through the computer’s microphone. This leads to overstimulation and feelings of frustration or fatigue.

Peer interaction for healthy development

What are the benefits of online schooling?

Not all public or private schools are well resourced, and the pandemic has hugely exacerbated educational inequality in South Africa, so innovative online offerings that present hope of improved educational outcomes for students in dysfunctional schools, or in schools struggling with curriculum recovery, are to be welcomed.

A good online schooling programme will offer a degree of connection and access to academic resources that suits students with conditions or personal circumstances where in-person attendance is not an ideal solution.

What are the benefits of on-campus schooling for students?

School is one of the critical environments where learners can develop a sense of belonging. The desire to connect seems to hit a peak in the teen years, and a great deal of research around this has shown that support from and spending time with friends can help reduce depression and anxiety.

Further research has underscored the importance of the supportive roles played by teachers and non-family adults in the lives of teens. The proximity that results from listening to and being with early adolescents in day-to-day activities, and from comprehending their issues, presents an opportunity to become credible, trusted and legitimate in the eyes of teens.

Direct person-to-person contact triggers parts of our nervous system that release a ‘cocktail’ of neurotransmitters tasked with regulating our response to stress and anxiety which builds resilience to uncertainty and challenges. Without a pre-existing in-person foundation to the student-teacher relationship, engagement and accountability are made far more difficult.

Movement, autonomy and connection are critical during the school day for maintaining wellness. This allows for the release of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that every teen needs to feel good, focus and maintain engagement with their studies.

Communication; collaborative problem-solving; resilience; cultural awareness and expression; understanding local, global and intercultural issues; and taking initiative in order to influence others (leadership) – all require empathy and tolerance, which is best developed in person.

Furthermore, identity construction is grounded in the actual process of socialisation. This process is founded upon the ties that a child or adolescent manages to forge with peers, teachers and non-family adults as well as centres of activity in his or her environment.

In-person schooling is best

What does this all mean for the future of schooling in South Africa?

With fewer than three million children (of a total of more than 13-million learners) in properly functioning schools in South Africa (pre-COVID-19), it is by now inevitable that some school leaders will have thrown most of their budgets at attractively packaged online offerings. The real, long-term good of the system would be better served by investing in developing a world-class teacher cohort for in-person schools that are rooted in and integrally serving their communities.

It may be that in the short term, curriculum recovery at schools in crisis could be supported by a sustainable online offering, however, this presupposes the presence of the hardware, software, data and training required to facilitate access, and should not happen at the expense of teacher recruitment, training and development.

The small group of students whose needs are better met through online schooling will benefit as long as they have access to the necessary infrastructure. Most well-resourced, in-person schools will augment their offerings with carefully chosen online tools and thus improve the teaching and learning experience without losing the benefits of in-person interaction.