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Can online teaching make for better education?

Mark Potterton describes the online teaching experience of teachers at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg during the COVID-19 lockdown. His observations form the basis for a reflection on the limitations and opportunities in future learning environments. South Africa’s technology landscape and human relations must also be taken into account.

COVID-19 shut down schools across the world this year and online education and virtual schooling quickly became part of the educational landscape for teachers and learners. Technology became a quick-fix solution for those who had access to technology. This experiment born out of necessity has challenged us to rethink how we use digital resources in a post-lockdown world.

Sacred Heart College’s experience

Our high school and Grade 6 teachers were already familiar with Google Classroom and adopted this technology as soon as we went into lockdown. In the preschool they began by using a platform called Seesaw, but towards the end, they were mainly using WhatsApp, creatively sending videos and photos of what children were doing. In the primary school, study packs and workbooks were initially sent home and teachers used email, the school App, phone calls and WhatsApp, but quickly transitioned to Google Classroom.

From the outset, Sacred Heart College opted for a personal approach to its online learning strategy. This included weekly phone calls to the parents and we made the services of the school counsellor available to all members of the school community. We recognized that the sudden transition to virtual schooling during a disruptive pandemic required access to additional resources and coping mechanisms.

We learnt that engagement with parents on a popular platform like WhatsApp was effective. It was both easy and familiar. The additional communication, especially with parents, added a far more collaborative teaching experience. One teacher said: “I really got to know our parents and our families…we have become so close.”

The additional communication added a far more collaborative teaching experience.

Similarly, parents assessed that Sacred Heart College’s communication strategy eased the transition from a physical to an online learning environment. One parent said: “Thank you for handling the class’s transition to online study so effectively. What could have easily been ‘remote’ schooling was a very connected and vibrant experience for Tim”.

Despite this, students, parents and guardians missed the human contact of in-person schooling. The learners missed the loss of structure, regular sporting and other school activities. They also missed their teachers and classmates.

We also found a correlation between the age of the learners and the effectiveness of distance education. Online learning worked for the older children, but younger learners found it harder to adapt. One challenge is that not all children have their parents at home during the day to provide regular adult supervision, or parents had to juggle supervision with their own professional responsibilities. However, our Foundation Phase teachers were very creative and even assessed the children’s reading over the phone.

In the traditional, face-to-face classroom setting, teachers interact with students, flexibly spot-check understanding and work with learning material in an engaging manner. Distance-learning challenged these interactive instructional practices.

I found teaching a lesson on the structure of the flower to a group of Grade 5 pupils easy. The model I made didn’t quite work out as planned, but the students certainly got the idea what the parts of the flower were. Similarly, my lesson on testing water for pollutants with the Grade 6 group was easy and straight forward, and very practical. In trying to explain concepts like polytheism and monotheism in religion, I found that I was far less effective, and I really struggled.

I noticed that the focus of my teaching also shifted. I felt the need to focus on broader concepts rather than simply following the curriculum. As teachers we kept asking ourselves: “What are the most essential skills we want our children to learn?” We also found that promoting dynamic critical thinking and fostering better communication and arguments were difficult to achieve in an online setting.

I felt the need to focus on broader concepts rather than simply following the curriculum.

Now that children have returned to class, some schools have continued with remote teaching, while others have blended it in with their regular curriculum.  The degree to which both can be used to optimize the overall teaching and learning experience is a field that will, almost certainly, generate much debate and study in the coming months and years.

Early findings on the way forward for blended learning

I found that Neil Selwyn, a distinguished research professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University with 25 years of experience in digital education and its implementation in the classroom, offers a good starting point for this conversation.

Selwyn has described the online education deployed by schools during the first half of 2020 as a form of “temporary distance education”. He argues that these emergency measures forced teachers, students and parents “who never expected – nor ever wanted – to use digital technology to communicate or work … [by] quickly developing ways of studying and teaching as best they can”.

He cautions us not to confuse this response with sophisticated and deliberate forms of online education. He argues, however, that there are plenty of lessons that can be taken from our experiences of what happens when technology-based remote teaching is implemented in such a massive way.

He notes that “digital competence” needs to account for inequalities that exist within online learning environments. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the classroom transitioned into the households of the various students. This made it far harder for teachers to work with students’ individual ability to engage with their schoolwork from home. The level of social and technological support that families provided also affected students’ ability to access technology-based schoolwork.

Teachers quickly found that they could not expect students to do the same things online at home that they might have reasonably been expected to do online at school. Timetables needed to be flexible and asynchronous, and alternate options for working offline were required.

The level of social and technological support that families provided also affected students’ ability to access technology-based schoolwork.

Selwyn also speaks of the need for pedagogic flexibility and digital improvisation, especially when technology fails. This is especially relevant in South Africa where many learners do not have access to computer hardware and fast-speed Internet (if they have the Internet at all) at home. Teachers have had to improvise when faced with technical glitches, breakdowns and unexpected intrusions.

Selwyn also pointed out that an overwhelming element of the COVID-19 teaching period was its emotional and fragile nature, especially when tensions were running high. Teachers had to display high levels of digital empathy, care and compassion towards their students. Students are unsettled. Matric students have had their final year interrupted. Many parents faced job uncertainty and some families had to deal with serious illness or death. As a result, teachers were required to be sensitive in delivering online programmes amid considerable turmoil.  

Teachers also have “to exercise digital restraint” and set clear boundaries to maintain a sound work-life balance. Synchronous video classes and Zoom meetings are mentally exhausting in ways that face-to-face equivalents are not, and content needs to be adapted into manageable segments. Online classes may require much more preparation time and planning and student and parent feedback can also be overwhelming.

Despite all this Selwyn argues that we’ve reached a point where millions of school students, teachers and parents now have first-hand experience of digital technology, and have a better sense of how these can be used to make learning  more engaging and perhaps even more effective.

Preserving the relational dimension of education

COVID-19 has taught us that online education must value the social, emotional and relational aspects of in-person teaching if it is to be effective.

Selwyn argues that many digital teaching “competencies” are human qualities that apply to any aspect of education. However, the COVID-19 experience called for a reassessment of how these familiar qualities and traits (such as flexibility, contextual awareness, and compassion) translate into the less familiar settings of video conferencing and learning management systems.

Selwyn argues that many digital teaching “competencies” are human qualities that apply to any aspect of education.

Selwyn is a cautious proponent of technology in schools. He advocates careful thought about why and how technology is used. This challenges us to think more carefully about what we want education to be. Selwyn’s experience has taught him that the use of technology in education is a matter of values, preferences and politics. Digital technology on its own cannot transform education and address the inequality, it simply makes some things different.

I echo his sentiments. Online teaching will not replace our current teaching practices. We also need to think carefully about our reasons for incorporating digital learning into our current teaching models. The challenge is how we can take advantage of what we have learnt during the lockdown and apply it to our classrooms in the future.

* 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.

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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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