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The challenges and opportunities of authentic Catholic online education

When schools closed in March, teachers and principals had little time to come up with alternatives to ensure that learning could continue for the duration of the COVID-19 lockdown regulations. Mark Potterton describes how his school had the means to implement online learning, and explains practical ideas that the school implemented to ensure that Catholic schools’ values were not lost.

COVID-19 has caused major disruption to education around the globe. In early June, UNESCO reported that COVID-19 had disrupted the schooling of 90% of the world’s children. To mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teaching and learning, millions of schools switched to distance learning. At the beginning of all this I asked the question whether you could still have a ‘Catholic’ school online?

The identity of a Catholic school

A lot has been written about the nature and purpose of the Catholic school. There is a myriad of books written on the identity issue. The best definition, in my view, was written by the late Professor Peter Hunter and Paul Faller, who argued that ‘the purpose of the Catholic School is to provide a good all-round education in the spirit of the gospel of Jesus, aspiring in particular to live out its central message and challenge: to worship the God who loves us, to love and help our fellow human beings, and to learn to exercise responsibility for the world around us’.

The purpose of the Catholic School is to provide a good all-round education in the spirit of the gospel of Jesus.

Most of the descriptions of the Catholic school are really about the culture of a school, and these descriptions speak about the lived values and attitudes which influence all aspects of the school’s life. They include activities in and beyond the classroom, relationships among staff members, parents and students, and disciplinary procedures. The emphasis is on people and relationships and how they deal with each other.

In the Church documents on the Catholic school, the focus has largely been on the religious dimension of the school, and on its Religious Education programme. These documents are concerned with the development of the spiritual capacity for faith, hope and love. A major focus in some of these is the importance of upholding the dignity of the human person, of all beings, and of all creation, with a special concern for the poor and the marginalised. Peter Hunter and Paul Faller argue that the essence of this dimension is ‘outreach to others, pastoral care for all, and celebration of the school’s religious character’.  

These dimensions are very difficult to replicate online. As a teaching principal I have had to get to know Google Classroom. When I try to convince hesitant colleagues to use the platform, I explain that it is an electronic filing cabinet where you can put your learning materials, videos and activities: and the children can access these materials and submit their own work. I don’t tell them how Google has taken over the classroom!

Efforts to foster Catholic schools’ values through online teaching

When we saw that the COVID-19 pandemic would impact on schooling at Sacred Heart College, we planned to continue school using the online platforms available to us.

In the High School and in Grade 6 the teachers were familiar with Google Classroom and that’s the technology they went with. In the Preschool they had used a platform called Seesaw. In the end the preschool mainly used WhatsApp very creatively, sending videos and photos of what children were doing. In the Primary School study packs and workbooks were sent home and teachers made use of email, the school App, phone calls and WhatsApp.

The biggest danger of running online education is that it is remote and that the primary concern becomes the ‘transmission of knowledge’, and this is the antithesis of what Catholic education should be. It must be about relationship and meaningful knowledge. The Church documents speak of preparing students ‘to take their place in society as responsible, honest and compassionate citizens’, and that teaching, and learning must be shaped by a Catholic vision of life.

The biggest danger of running online education is that it is remote and that the primary concern becomes the ‘transmission of knowledge.’

We decided from the outset to make our approach personal and include weekly phone calls to the parents, as well as make the services of the school counsellor available. In subsequent feedback from parents it was the personalised dimension of the online learning that was appreciated by both the students and the parents.

In a recently published UNESCO document on online learning, the authors argue that distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally happens in school. In fact, they argue that in trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic.

Schools must decide on a daily structure, a timetable, or a to do list of what the staff want for students. The authors strongly suggest that less is more when it comes to the scope of work teachers set in distance learning, especially in times of uncertainty and instability.

The many weeks that we have had teaching from a distance we have seen what works and doesn’t for both our students and parents. We have a better understanding of the pace at which work gets done and one of the biggest lessons has been that teachers need to be both flexible and adaptable.

The UNESCO document provides instructive guidance for Catholic schools, reminding us to focus on the ‘whole child’ – a similar mandate to that contained in the Catholic Education documents.

Online learning reveals students home environments

The authors argue that children at home don’t just need education, but that they first and foremost need to be fed and protected. They go on to say that health, safety and wellbeing must always come first, and that schools need to understand the complexities of home lives and the mental, emotional and physical strains that families are facing.

Schools need to understand the complexities of home lives and the mental, emotional and physical strains that families are facing.

In reflecting on distance education one teacher said: “Before my eighth-grade history students moved into online learning this spring, I had no idea about one student’s affection for Cup Noodles or another’s sweet way of talking about her 5-year-old brother. Perhaps I should have known, but I didn’t, and I wish I had.

Distance learning has enabled intimate glimpses into students’ lives and thought processes, and I worry that these moments won’t happen as much once we eventually return to campus. However, I realise that doesn’t have to be the case—and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways to translate the best aspects of online instruction to the physical classroom.”

The teacher goes on to explain what lessons she will take back to her regular classroom. Lessons like providing quick email feedback on work, having creative and fun assessments, providing space for relevant side-chatter and introducing warm-up questions about children’s lives.

These are, and have been, unprecedented times and Catholic schools are urgently called to respond as best we can. Being an authentic Catholic school online is not easy. It is, however, vitally important that in addition to worrying about the impact on teaching and learning, we think about the spiritual, psychological and social needs of children too.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he/she teaches them. He or She who learns nothing from his/her students is, in my opinion, worthless.


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Mark Potterton
Mark Potterton is currently the primary school principal of Sacred Heart College, Observatory. He has taught in schools, a teachers’ training college and in universities. He served as National Director of the Catholic Institute of Education and worked at Umalusi as the Chief Operating Officer. He was part of the Ministerial Committee that looked at schools that work well in township and rural areas; as well as on a committee investigating teacher absenteeism in South Africa.

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