Classroom at Parklands College in Cape Town

The Human Connection: Teaching During COVID

In March 2020, due to COVID-19, I found myself trapped within four walls with my husband, Don Duffield, a fellow teacher at Parklands College in Cape Town, both of us having to teach online.

Being teachers at Parklands College, and receiving continuous professional development with regard to using the latest technology in teaching and learning, meant that we were theoretically ready to go online. Pre COVID-19, we had had ‘e-days’ every now and again, when learners were given the opportunity to work from home whilst teachers facilitated the process from school. So pandemic lockdown merely meant it was now ‘e-day every day’.

Even so, no amount of professional development can ever quite prepare us for that moment when the connection drops, or the iPad doesn’t want to connect, or, most importantly, from the isolation of doing this completely on your own.

Strong support

Support from the Parklands College management team as well as the dedicated Parklands technical support team really went a long way in helping to calm the panic in moments where I felt lost in cyberspace. Both management team members and the technical support team were always calm, supportive and without judgement when, for example, I ‘lost my class’ because I accidentally clicked on the wrong Google Meet and couldn’t understand why my learners were not in attendance.

But the most important support structure has been having a colleague at home. I am a mathematics and mathematical literacy teacher and my husband Don is a physical and natural sciences teacher. We want our learners to be as passionate about mathematics and the sciences as we are.

Our initial approach to ‘strongly encouraging’ our students was to make use of assessment platforms. In my Grades 7 and 8 mathematics classes, I made use of the online platform MathsBuddy to set tasks and monitor learner progress, while I used Google Forms to set up mathematical literacy quizzes for my senior learners. For physical science, Don made use of GoFormative for both informal and formal assessment tasks. The real-time tracking of learners’ engagement and their success with the task, ensured that learners who were not fully engaged in the task could be called out to do so.

Robotics at Parklands College

Feedback is fundamental

In their book Visible Learning: Feedback, John Hattie and Shirley Clarke discuss feedback as the most critical influencer of learner achievement. The online assessments we were giving our learners most definitely provided feedback to other teachers as well as learners about their progress, but was it enough? Hattie and Clarke also refer to ‘peer to peer feedback’ as well as ‘within and post-lesson feedback’. We felt that the vital questions teachers should constantly be asking themselves are: Is my teaching approach effective? Am I doing enough?

I set out to gather data with Don’s assistance. How were the learners that Don teaches experiencing online learning in physical science? What worked? What didn’t? Are the online assessments giving us a true reflection of what is really happening?

My reasons for conducting this research were threefold. Foremost was my personal interest in physical science. Secondly, Don wanted to determine the impact that COVID-19 has had on his science teaching approach. And thirdly, we both wanted to give learners an opportunity to reflect on their perceptions of their education over the past year.

Having spent a number of years reflecting on my own teaching during my postgraduate research, it was time to peer into the world of others. Although it is extremely valuable to learn from our colleagues and gain insight into what is happening beyond our teaching bubble, we seldom have the opportunity to do so.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ‘Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013’ results , found that teachers learn more from each other than they do when paired with a mentor. These collaborative practices are shown to result in teachers who are more

What did we ask and why?

In collaboration with Don, I set up two surveys among learners taking Physical Science as a subject: one for General Education and Training (GET) learners (Grades 8 and 9) and another one for Further Education and Training (FET) learners (Grades 10, 11 and 12). In total, 226 learners were surveyed. Similar questions were asked in each survey. These surveys were moderated by Dr Erna Lampen, our senior research advisor from the University of Stellenbosch.

Firstly, we asked about device accessibility and usage to see if learner views were influenced in any way by technological constraints. Secondly, respondents were asked to rate their experiences with online learning and face-to-face learning on a scale of 0-10, 0 being terrible and 10 fantastic. Learners were also asked to explain the reason for their rating.

Having offered online learning for almost four months in 2020, and for a few weeks at the beginning of this year, we also asked them to rate their experiences with both forms of learning for each of these years, to see if there was any shift in their views.

In order to prompt respondents to share additional insights regarding their learning over the past year, we also included the following questions:

  • What have you enjoyed about your experience with online learning in physical science?
  • What have you not enjoyed about your experience with online learning in physical science?
  • What did you miss in terms of face-to-face physical science classes when you were attending online classes?
  • What did you not miss in terms of face-to-face physical science classes when you were attending online classes?

These questions were included not only as an opportunity for learners to reflect and give feedback on their learning experience, but also to provide further background information to the Science teachers on the ratings given by learners.

What did the data show?

While some learners referred to external factors, such as load shedding, as an impeding factor, most of those who gave their online learning experience a low rating, referred to factors such as their own style of learning not being conducive to learning online in the home environment; a lack of personal self-discipline; not having enough face-to-face time with their teacher; and not having their friends around them to ask questions.

Those who were positive about online learning indicated that they loved the fact that the lessons were recorded, which enabled them to go back and work over the content in their own time and at their own pace.

Reflections on the data

Some of the learners observed that their science teachers were initially out of their comfort zone. Don summarised the science teachers’ response to this finding as follows:

This suggests to us science teachers that despite the fact we have taught for many decades and have received the weekly professional development sessions offered at Parklands College, it does not necessarily mean that we are as good at online teaching as we are at face-to-face teaching. Switching to online teaching has posed a challenge to us science teachers, even though we are a highly resourced school with state-of-the-art technology at our fingertips.

What the FET learners missed most was discussing work with their friends, as well as opportunities to ask each other questions (74,5 per cent of FET learners). Among GET learners 70,2 per cent ranked discussing work with their friends as their primary reason for preferring face-to-face learning over online learning.

For GET learners the second most important factor for preferring face-to-face teaching was the opportunities to ask the teacher questions (55,6 per cent). For FET learners this was also important, although here it was ranked as third most important factor at 66,7 per cent.

Explanation of content by the teacher ranked fourth in importance for both GET and FET learners. What emerged clearly was that in the online context learners miss their peers more than they do their teachers.

Parklands College during COVID

A clear difference between GET and FET responses

An analysis of the comments given by our learners revealed a clear difference between how the GET and FET learners viewed their online learning experiences. Several FET learners saw themselves as contributing to the difficulty of online learning: for example, being easily distracted in the home environment, and poor time management.

GET learners on the other hand did not show the same level of responsibility and self-reflection towards their learning during their online learning experience. In their responses, they focused almost exclusively on external factors such as connectivity and the teacher’s contribution to the learning experience.

In many cases, but not all, learners’ marks were higher during online assessments than in their written tests once they came back to school and had to write tests under more controlled conditions. The lack of mid-year examinations in 2020 due to the nationwide pandemic, resulted in many of our learners being ‘exam unfit’ when it came to writing their November examinations and their results testified to this.

Some of the learners also expressed concerns about whether all of their peers were being honest during ‘closed book assessments’, indicating that they perceived themselves to be disadvantaged by their honesty. The science department is now keen in future to explore monitoring apps as some colleagues did in other departments, allowing them to ‘lock’ learners into a specific application whilst completing their assessment.

The human touch

While the study was limited to one highly resourced school’s physical science department, both Don and I believe that the initial analysis of the results rings true to what many learners experienced over the past year. Even though their teachers are highly experienced, and were prepared to present online classes, what the learners missed the most, was learning with each other.

We are social beings and so we should never overlook the importance of the human connection in the learning process in our schools.