These are difficult days. We are a country in lockdown and schools and universities are being called on to teach remotely so that students can finish the 2020 academic year. Online teaching, however, in the most unequal country in the world, is highly problematic, writes the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Associate Professor Joanne Hardman.
In an article published on April 9, Professor Jonathan Jansen makes an ethical argument for why teaching online is a problem in the South African context and proposes scrapping the academic year. I do not rehearse his cogent arguments here except to underline his point that 80% of schools are disadvantaged. Most schoolchildren do not have devices or connectivity, making this online move yet another step in widening the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
My article is not about the ethics of online teaching and learning, but rather, deals with the pedagogical implications of teaching “through” versus “with” technology.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are tools that can be used very well, provided they are underpinned by what is referred to as a constructivist pedagogy. The research is clear: it is how the tool is used by a competent teacher that determines the outcomes. A constructivist pedagogy assumes that children are active learners who, together with the teacher, can construct knowledge. An iPad, for example, is a tool much like a pen is a tool. In the early 20th century when pens replaced chalkboards and styluses, there was a huge outcry about how this novel tool would adversely affect children.
Did the pen change children cognitively? Undoubtedly, yes. We no longer must remember things orally but can write them down, leaving cognitive space for other things. The pen alone does nothing to alter a child cognitively. Technological devices, also, cannot on their own alter a child cognitively. There is a body of evidence to show that ICTs have a positive effect on, for example, mathematical gains in primary schools, but this depends entirely on how the ICTs are used pedagogically, where pedagogy refers to the dialogical interaction opened between teacher and taught. It is in the social space opened by communicative interaction that understanding and conceptual development can happen. A pen carries with it no concepts; neither does any ICT.
If schooling is about anything, it must be about the development of cognitive functioning. This requires face to face pedagogy. I am unaware of any research suggesting that teaching through technology (as opposed to with technology) can promote cognitive development. So, pedagogically, this online move is not likely to lead to learning in any meaningful way, which starkly brings into question why this move has been made. Moreover, the practicalities of online teaching are hard to navigate, even for those who have significant privilege.
I am well educated, I have three devices in my house, and I am fairly competent at using them. I’m privileged enough to have a space to work with my daughter who, in grade 4, has begun online schooling. Grade 4 is an interesting age; at 10 children have not yet developed the ability to fully self-regulate or think in abstract ways. They require concrete examples of the concepts they will acquire over time.
My child is at a good former Model C school and the teachers are doing their best to interact with the children online. Unfortunately, cognitively, children below the age of 13 or 14 are unable to grasp abstract concepts in the absence of concrete examples. Worksheets, placed on Google Classroom, are not concrete examples.
Although I am educated, I am not a qualified teacher and the struggle to make concrete the concepts she is being given is a very real one. What of those parents who do not have familiarity with devices or who are not well educated? How will they traverse this uncertain terrain?
Of course, the question then becomes, what to do if we cannot teach online? We need to be thinking long term, it’s conceivable that children will not return to classrooms if Covid-19 is not brought under check. With this in mind, we need to streamline our curriculum to teach core concepts. If the lockdown is lifted and schooling does commence, I do not necessarily think the year is lost — provided we pare down the curriculum and use the longer holidays as teaching time.
I’d like to salute the teachers who are sitting in their homes, with their own children and 30 to 40 virtual children, operating through a platform they were never taught to fully use in university. The next time you clap for essential services, I hope you will be clapping for these unsung heroes who educate our children.
Joanne Hardman is associate professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town.
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March and implement a national lockdown from 26 March. The intention of these drastic measures is to “flatten the curve” and contain the spread of the coronavirus to enable healthcare workers to more effectively treat those affected. Although South Africa has recently reached a peak of COVID-19 infections, the country is expecting a surge in positive cases in August.
UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information.
Getting credible, evidence-based, accessible information and recommendations relating to COVID-19
The Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, are producing educational video material for use on digital platforms and in multiple languages. The information contained in these videos is authenticated and endorsed by the team of experts based in the Department of Medicine. Many of the recommendations are based on current best evidence and are aligned to provincial, national and international guidelines. For more information on UCT’s Department of Medicine, please visit the website.
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The Covid-19 crisis has reinforced the global consequences of fragmented, inadequate and inequitable healthcare systems and the damage caused by hesitant and poorly communicated responses.24 Jun 2020 - >10 min read Opinion
Our scientists must not practise in isolation, but be encouraged to be creative and increase our knowledge of the needs of developing economies, write Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of UCT, and Professor Thokozani Majozi from the University of the Witwatersrand.09 Jun 2020 - 6 min read Republished
South Africa has been recognised globally for its success in flattening the curve, which came as a result of President Ramaphosa responding quickly to the crisis, writes Prof Alan Hirsch.28 Apr 2020 - 6 min read Republished
In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”
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