Is remote learning a mission impossible? Outliers prove it can be done.
No-fee public school Apex High School, in the Western Cape, innovated to educate learners using just 25MB a day, facing and overcoming typical challenges of online learning.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, schools across the country have faced the challenge of ensuring that pupils effectively continue with their studies, whether they are physically at school or learning remotely.
One of the biggest issues is schools’ capabilities to transition to remote learning so that no child is left behind during the academic year.
Opinions on the closure of schools for four weeks – until August 24 2020 – are divided. What is clear is that schools should be able to respond to future similar announcements in an agile fashion.
They must be able to look at alternative learning methods, such as online learning, so that future closures have less impact on our pupils’ abilities to finish the school year.
There are now clear examples of where online, remote learning is a viable and effective alternative to physically attending class.
While online learning is an option in South Africa for a few communities who have the resources, the country’s readiness for this is still hampered by various challenges, including high data costs, lack of access to suitable remote-learning devices and effective delivery of lessons.
Understanding the challenges of online education in South Africa during Covid-19
While many schools are embracing a virtual learning environment, not everyone is able to teach or learn across different digital platforms such as MS Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp and social media.
Most pupils in South Africa come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the Covid-19 crisis shone a spotlight on the country’s digital divide and social inequalities.
Connectivity is an issue across the country but it particularly affects pupils in peri-urban and rural areas where there is no infrastructure to provide connectivity.
Where infrastructure is available, the high cost of mobile data or home broadband access means that few households or educational institutions can afford it. Devices needed for online learning – whether mobile handsets, laptops or PCs – can also be prohibitively expensive for the majority of South Africans.
This acts as a barrier for pupils who need them to access online learning platforms.
Even though these are all big challenges, there are workable solutions when the right people and partnerships come together to solve the core problems such as lowering data costs to boost e-learning and ensuring that all educational sites have zero-rated data.
Unless addressed, these socially driven issues will continue to prevent a large portion of our country’s pupils from receiving effective and uninterrupted education.
How Apex High forged a new path to online learning
Apex High is a no-fee, dual-medium, public high school in Eersterivier – between Cape Town and Stellenbosch – which partnered with Acorn Education, a nonprofit organisation focused on helping schools unlock their full potential to provide excellent education and equal opportunity.
When the extended holiday school closures were announced, even before South Africa’s lockdown began, the school proactively started tackling concerns about ways to keep their pupils connected and motivated if they needed to learn at home.
After reviewing available technology platforms, they initially determined that Facebook would work best to continue teaching as it required the lowest data usage and was already the most used platform in their community.
On March 31, Apex Virtual High School was launched via Facebook groups, which were used as virtual classrooms.
Operating on a four-day week learning schedule for eight hours a day, the Facebook groups used the same format as in-person lessons and the curriculum originally planned for the school year.
To keep pupils engaged in this new virtual classroom, the lessons also integrated Facebook features likes polls, short videos and photos.
The decision to teach online soon showed positive results, with 100% teacher participation and more than 80% pupil attendance. Some pupils even attended virtual classes in their school uniforms.
To solve the challenge of devices, Apex first surveyed its families to determine what was available at home. The team learnt that 90% of households had a device that a pupil could use, which was more than was anticipated.
For the families without access to a device, the team identified suitable low-cost smartphones at a cost of R290 and provided them on loan.
The school then found a way to push data to each pupil every morning and to dramatically reduce data usage to just 3MB a lesson, educating pupils for a week with the same amount of data that would typically be used for a one-hour Zoom meeting.
The Apex team worked tirelessly to encourage engagement, provide holistic pupil support and inspire attendance during their journey within a virtual school setup.
The team moved daily lessons from Facebook to an online learning platform to substantially reduce their remaining data cost by taking advantage of the zero-rating of education websites provided by mobile telecommunication companies.
Should all these companies come on board, they will potentially be able to reduce their data cost to zero. Their efforts meant very few learning hours were lost and their pupils are still on track with the year’s curriculum.
In living out its motto to do “whatever it takes”, Apex High shows what one committed team can do to support pupils in the country when a positive mindset, persistence and willingness to work together are involved.
The team’s story clearly demonstrates that online learning – taking the need for devices, the cost of data and the delivery of the daily lessons into account – is feasible, and the strides they have made are easily adaptable.
Effective private and public partnerships are needed for successful online learning
To make virtual, online learning possible for more schools and institutions, South Africa needs the private and public sector to work together to support schools and pupils. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation encourages and supports collaboration with like-minded partners to enable successful education environments in the physical or online classroom.
During the Covid-19 crisis, it would be highly effective for the ministries of education seeking to offer remote learning to leverage partners and enlist the support of a broader ecosystem of actors. Government and educational bodies pooling their resources would ensure that the children of South Africa were not hindered in their education.
Data and connectivity play a big role in remote learning, and there is also a need for telecommunication companies to continue to work with education partners to facilitate online learning.
Many of the mobile telecommunication companies are contributing to this cause by partnering with online learning platforms to provide zero-rated education websites. We are grateful for these providers who joined this important cause and urge others to follow their lead so that more schools, and pupils, can access and benefit from remote learning.
Learning from successful online learning initiatives
Apex High’s stellar efforts show that it is possible to overcome some of the big challenges in providing online schooling.
If the challenges of data and devices are solvable, then the last hurdle to overcome is delivery.
If school leadership and teachers dedicate themselves to working together, as those at Apex High did, then they should be able to fulfil the goal of providing quality education for every pupil.
• Sean Bastable is programme manager at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation