Although covid–19 led to disruption of the education sector in many countries, in South Africa it created an opportunity to address the digital divide at some public schools.
“Submitting life orientation and English homework online is just a thing we do now. It’s easier and more fun than writing it in a book,” says Naledi Mohapi after a demonstration showing how to use the My School app. She replaces her phone in her pocket and fades away, into a pool of learners wearing blue-and-white uniforms.
Mohapi (16), in grade 8, one of 665 learners at Dr AT Moreosele Secondary, has been engaging frequently with the online method of learning and teaching introduced by the school.
Silver lining in the midst of chaos
Through the use of WhatsApp, Facebook and the My Forms app, blended learning is thriving at the school.
“We have a WhatsApp group chat we use to talk to each other about dates of when we are supposed to go to school, and about homework and stuff,’’ says Mohapi. ‘‘I use Facebook a lot because it has free mode, so even if I don’t have data to check the WhatsApp group, I can still check on Facebook to see if there is any work to do.”
Dr AT Moreosele is a quintile-four (receives less subsidy from the government than schools in quintiles one to three and charges fees) high school in Mabopane, north of Pretoria, established in 1972. Its learners come from all parts of Mabopane, Hebron, Ga-Rankuwa and even Soshanguve. The school, even before covid-19, thought it important to introduce information and communication technology (ICT) to its learners.
In 2019 the school introduced an app for the leaners called My School. At the time, the app was not a necessity for many learners. Faith Baloyi, a Setswana home language and consumer studies teacher at the school, says the app had information about the school and was not necessarily used for learning and teaching.
“The app was used to provide details of the school, timetables, class guardians (representatives) information and the school’s newsletter,” says Baloyi.
When the pandemic hit, however, it created an opportunity to expand efforts to integrate ICT into the school and have more learners using the online method. The app became the perfect platform to stay in touch with learners. It is where learners went to check announcements and timetables. Since the country was in lockdown and social distancing at schools was important, checking timetables on the app was one of the most crucial things for learners such as Mohapi.
When the coronavirus made its way into our lives life as we knew it changed. We went from 2am drive-thru visits, spending hours on campus, meeting new people and exchanging hubbly bubbly pipes with strangers, to a strict 9pm curfew, social distancing, no alcohol or cigarettes, no social gatherings and, of course, no school. What was meant to be 21 days of lockdown turned into a year of terror and virus mutation, with multiple waves of the pandemic hitting, each as hard as the previous one. From one confirmed case to 402 in a matter of days, the virus spread like wildfire. With numbers of confirmed cases rising daily, a delayed academic year was one of many consequences.
When 21 days became 42 days and then months, we had to find a way to keep living in this newfound reality. This meant adjusting and working hard to salvage the time lost during hard lockdown. One of the sectors badly affected was education. Basic and higher education came to a standstill. Since the basis of South African education pre-covid relied mostly on contact learning, 13 million learners were left without any adequate form of schooling.
This led to two things. Firstly, the realisation that although we call present-day youth digital natives, this generalisation encompasses a large chunk of youth with limited or no access to digital devices. Secondly, it led to the introduction of online learning to students in public schools, particularly those between grades eight and 11.
“Initially, when the pandemic hit, learners were categorised into a rotational system so that they could attend and recover [time lost when schools were closed]. These classes were reduced to 20 learners per class,” says Baloyi.
With the rotational system, she explained, each grade is required to go to school for a week: “Week one for grade eight, week two for grade nine and so on.”
This system had been functional for the school since it began in 2020, but they felt the need to utilise the online space to make learning more convenient.
In the week when learners are not meant to go to school for physical classes, they are given homework and assignments. With videos demonstrating how to submit homework online posted on the school’s Facebook page and My School, learners have the option to submit their work online.
“We started with online WhatsApp groups in term two, and in term three we started with online classes and homework using the forms app,” says Baloyi.
For the school, the process of online class and submissions has proved easy and effective for those using it. “The learners show interest because they love gadgets,” Baloyi says. Since the beginning of the use of the forms app to submit homework and for online classes in the third term, there have been 13 345 visits to the site the school uses online. As the third term started in July, this is an impressive and positive turnout for the school.
As openly welcomed as it was by learners, the teachers at the school also embrace the new way of doing things. Mr Machidi, a life orientation teacher, says he enjoys using the online platform. He told Wits Vuvuzela the online platform is effective as it helps the teachers cover the syllabus, helps learners study even when they are not at school, and maintains a relationship between teachers, learners and parents.
One of the advantages of using this online platform is that learners are required to have an active email address linked to their device in order to be able to submit their work online. This allows them to create and properly use email addresses.
“Too many learners do not know the purpose of email addresses until they are in matric and have to apply for space in universities and for bursaries,” says Machidi. “This gives them a chance to learn. When they are required to send emails, they will know exactly what to do.”
Tebogo Mouane, a grade 10 learner at the school, agreed. He told Wits Vuvuzela that although he is in grade 10, he had no idea why he had an email address. “Now I know how it works,” he says.
Mohapi also agreed, with a laugh: “I send everyone emails now and I also teach my mother what the email is for.”
Although the school has had success with the online usage of its platforms, it continues to acknowledge that not every learner has Internet access, let alone a smartphone to use the platforms. The school continues to give such learners hard copies of the same activities posted on social media. This is done on the days when the learners go to school. The school also has a Wi-Fi connection, so learners who need data can go to school to connect to use the online platforms.
Digital literacy in South Africa
Digital literacy, according to Western Sydney University, means “having the skills required to live, learn and work in a society where communication and access to information is through digital technologies such as Internet platforms, social media and mobile devices.” This definition makes one think about today’s youth, whose lives are centred on technology, social media, Wi-Fi and emails. With more people staying home, there was increased digitalisation worldwide, and internet traffic increased in South Africa.
Lestar Lusango says promoting digital literacy from a young age can help prepare the youth for future careers in tech, improve multitasking, improve visual-spatial development and improve problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Granted, South Africa has had a plan to integrate technology into the learning system for years now. A draft White Paper on e-education has been in existence since 2004. More effort was made to bring ICT into schools back in 2015, when R17 billion was spent on a project to introduce smart boards to schools in Gauteng. Along with the smart boards, 17 000 tablets were bought for learners. At a media briefing hosted on March 8, 2019, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said the plan to introduce digitalised learning in South Africa would be done in phases, reaching all schools by 2024.
The flaw in this project, however, was that it was only for learners in matric, and the tablets allowed them a year of access before they completed their matric year and got shipped off into the real world, with no clear evidence of whether the tablets improved their ability to engage with digital technologies.
Lusango argues that although the pandemic created an opportunity to address the digital divide, it did so only in urban areas.
“In rural areas, addressing the digital divide has not quite picked up and this slow progression will always make it impossible for learners from rural areas to match up to the standards of digital literacy in the country.”
Based on an article by SEACOM, since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the 21-day lockdown in March, 2021, there has been an increase in internet traffic in South Africa. This shows that many people are using more online platforms for work, education and entertainment.
After three months of online learning and homework submissions, teacher Baloyi confidently considers the learners of Dr AT Moreosele to be digitally literate. Their ability to easily navigate the online system, create and link their email addresses to their devices, type their homework without errors and submit without any trouble is an indication to her that the learners are well aware of how to use their technological devices for academic purposes.
“Our learners are digitally savvy,” she concludes.