Severe disruptions to academic years have necessitated that learners and students stay at home for extended periods or attend classes on a rotational basis while entire curriculums have had to be overhauled.
UNICEF’s South African Representative Christine Muhigana estimates that some 54% of learning time has been lost.
Learners are between 75% and a full school year behind where they should be, while a total of 750,000 learmers have reportedly also dropped out of school, most of them in informal urban and rural settings.
“All experts agree that the effects of the pandemic learning disruptions will be felt most acutely by the most under-resourced schools,” Muhigana says.
Incredibly, many organisations have managed to overcome disruptions by going the extra mile for their learners and by employing blended, or hybrid, learning strategies, though their implementation has been more difficult in South Africa due to learners struggling to access digital tools and data services.
Fortunately entities like the Datatec Educational and Technology Foundation, which funds educational organisations serving underprivileged communities across South Africa, have been able to provide learners with these technologies during the pandemic – to great effect.
The Foundation’s beneficiary organisations overcame insurmountable odds to continue providing teaching, development and care that learners needed to achieve the results they did.
Some of these beneficiaries, such as the Tomorrow Trust, which supports orphaned and vulnerable children on their education journey, had already embarked on blended learning strategies before Covid-19.
In 2019, the non-profit launched its SHIFT programme, an ICT initiative to integrate blending learning into its
While WhatsApp classes were initially implemented, facilitators found that learners needed more direct learning, which resulted in the NPO sourcing and redirecting funding to purchase LTE devices and SIM cards.
All learners and teachers received devices and 40GB of data to join. It then introduced icebreakers, breakaway sessions and online classes to the children.
At the height of the pandemic, educators were able to connect virtually with the learners to bridge the gap on lost learning.
In 2021, once restrictions had eased, the Trust introduced a blended in-person and online class model, and in 2022, this model will be more in-person focused, with one virtual touchpoint scheduled for each month.
Included in the blended approach are online classes, online mentorship, career days and an after-school mathematics programme for grade 8s and 9s.
It is interesting to note how the inclusion of blended learning impacted the NPO’s costs. For the month of July 2019, which included its Holiday and Saturday School Programme, the figure recorded was R1.1-million (in-person learning). In July 2020, the amount was R687 000 and a year later, in July 2021, R561 000.
Another Datatec Educational and Technology Foundation beneficiary, the Vula Mathematics Project, which aims to improve the competence of maths teachers in under-resourced schools, was hit hard by the pandemic.
During the initial levels 5 and 4 of the lockdown, teachers were forced to stay home with no learning taking place at all.
Furthermore, because the schools Vula works with often don’t have electricity or reliable connectivity, online training sessions were not possible.
Yet Vula still managed to find a way.
Past and current teachers involved with the programme were brought in to provide support to teachers in the programme via phone calls, WhatsApp and text messages.
Because Vula’s in-person workshops were cancelled, the monies could be redirected to cover cellphone and data costs and those related to the purchase of greater quantities of teaching and revision materials for maths and science learners.
Newly-acquired digital skills have enabled many teachers to seek out and download relevant teaching resources and materials.
Beneficiary and youth development NPC Afrika Tikkun, meanwhile, purchased a learner management system through My Learning Hub. This enabled young people, their parents and partner organisations to access learning material and content remotely.
The organisation also established a digital library for young people to access books through the OverDrive platform.
The transition to these technologies has been relatively seamless.
All participants in the Afrika Tikkun programme have access to either desktops or tablets at its community centres on a rotational basis. Those with smartphones can also access the digital platforms through free WiFi at the centres.
Afrika Tikkun’s Onyi Nwaneri says: “Blended learning certainly improves the outcomes because learners have infinitely more material they can access, have the flexibility to log on in their own time and engage the content at their own pace. They also become more tech savvy in the process.”
Another Datatec Educational and Technology Foundation beneficiary that has been an early adopter of hybrid learning technologies is OLICO Maths Education. For the better part of a decade it has implemented strategies to support the transition from primary school to high school maths.
At the height of the Covid-19 restrictions, in-person tutoring shifted to remote support primarily through WhatsApp groups. Once face-to-face tutoring resumed, the WhatsApp support offering changed to an “on-demand” tutoring service for any Grade 7-9 learners across SA.
In 2021, more than 10 000 learners accessed OLICO’s maths hotline.
Through the roll-out of its programmes, OLICO has found that learners practice far more maths exercises online than they do with pen and paper. They will also pause, rewind and re-watch tutorial videos much more than they would ask questions in a class setting.
Finally, Datatec Educational and Technology Foundation beneficiary Kutlwanong Centre for Maths, Science and Technology Promaths programme has yielded exceptional results due to its blended learning initiatives.
Schooling at Promaths centres resumed in June 2020 for the grade 12s with blended teaching and learning. The grade 11s resumed in July/August 2020 and the grade 10s in September 2020.
While learners and teachers initially had problems with adapting to this model, training and capacity building of employees involved in operations, management and support enabled the system to function highly effectively.
Kutlwanong Promaths Tumelo Mabitselo says: “Both learners and teachers in our programme feel inspired with our innovative education system, as they thought ICTs in education were only meant for those learners whose parents or guardians can afford to take them to private schools or former Model C schools. Digital learning has nurtured collaboration among the teachers and learners, and developed and broadened their horizons with utilising ICTs as a tool to support daily activities.”