Today’s education approach features ingrained systems that haven’t changed all that much in the last century, writes James Bayhack, Sub-Saharan Africa Director at CM.com. Until the COVID-19 crisis, that is.
More than a year and a half ago, the virus forever changed our worlds, with every aspect of life being turned on its head – education included. Initially affecting an estimated 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and over 100 million teachers and school staff, no one could’ve predicted the far-reaching and devastating impact COVID-19 school closures had – and continue to have – on global education systems.
Today, close to half of the world’s students are still suffering, with a recent UNESCO study revealing that a further 100 million children won’t be able to read due to the health crisis, erasing decades of learning progress.
As a developing country already battling to fund education before COVID-19, the pandemic has worsened South Africa’s education gap, with our most vulnerable children and adults without access to the devices, data, and skills needed to continue learning. It’s estimated that local learners who have been able to adapt to remote learning are currently between 75% and a full school year behind where they should be.
To make matters worse, between 400 000 and 500 000 South African learners have reportedly dropped out of school altogether, translating to about 750 000 children not attending school in our country. Learning loss aside, this could have detrimental long-term effects by exposing more girls and women to violence and hindering the development of soft skills – crucial for children and adults to navigate their current environments, work well with others, and achieve their goals.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – just as much as the crisis disrupted education, it also spurred innovation and agility within the sector. Governments, education organisations, and partners from all over the world quickly responded to support education continuity – developing digital-, radio-, and TV-based learning solutions for students and teachers alike. We were reminded of how technology and people can come together to adapt to change – and the critical role we all still have to play in driving new ways of learning forward.
The power of technology
As with other industries, technology supported our transition to a new world of work, life, and learning. Without it, there wouldn’t be remote learning at all. Online libraries, digital learning platforms, education apps, and live group learning sessions are just some of the innovations that empower learners, parents, and educators during the ongoing pandemic.
Locally, many of our telecommunication networks, including Telkom, MTN, and Vodacom, zero-rated a wide range of learning sites, allowing data-concerned parents and students to download educational resources for free. Vodacom also created a zero-rated e-school portal, offering an extensive range of learning material for grades R to 12.
African learning platform Mindset dives into almost every school subject with engaging videos, while Siyavula provides free online maths and science books and practice questions for exams. And from an app perspective, South African Sisanda Tech creates simulated science labs to make experiments fun and easy.
These examples show how e-learning can help improve access to information and resources for more South African children. But a lot still has to be done to bridge our digital divide and enhance learning for all.
The power of partnership
With sky-high data costs, many local families and teachers can’t afford the data needed to sustain online learning – and this is something that needs to change, fast. Government, private-sector organisations, mobile operators, and ICT companies all have a role to play to help our country recover from the education disruption and future-proof our education system.
In the private sector, businesses can donate technology to students in the form of tablets and cloud-based services to increase the use of digital learning platforms. They should also consider internship opportunities, like Techno Girl, opening more doors for our youth in STEM careers. Building a generation of ICT-proficient youth is crucial for South Africa if we are to continue with our digital transformation. We need more ICT engineers, programmers, software developers, and innovators, and therefore, we need to develop more training and research institutions that focus on these kinds of digital skills.
And if educators are to teach digital skills, they also need to be proficient in digital teaching and technology. Digital skills training needs to become an essential part of all teacher training programmes across the country, and teachers need to be trained in how to effectively conduct online learning lessons to keep students engaged. To help relieve the pressure from teachers and parents, WhatsApp chatbots can enable learners to get answers quickly and efficiently.
Zero-rated educational sites should be extended so that parents teaching their children from home and schools in poorer communities can continue to access these learning tools, without suffering from high data costs. This requires co-operation between schools and universities and mobile service providers. Mobile operators can also negotiate free or reduced data bundles with educational institutions.
Internet penetration is a massive hurdle to overcome, especially in rural communities, so we need to ramp up our connectivity efforts and collaboration between industry players and government to accelerate accessibility for all.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis changed the face of education forever. But with accelerated innovation and adoption of online learning, it can be argued that this transformation was for the better, forcing South Africa to rethink our education system. With the right technology, private- and public-sector partnerships and training, digital learning, and teaching can thrive.