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Updated: Jul 23, 2021

In early September, we were invited by the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) Edhub to share our experiences of remote learning at Axium during COVID-19. Melanie Smuts, a development partner with One World, who works with Axium on their distance learning intervention represented Axium alongside a broad range of education stakeholders to explore what is emerging locally and internationally in the area of remote learning.

Melanie shared her presentation and insights from the panel below:

Imagine you are a final year student in the Amajinqi district in the Eastern Cape. If you have made it this far in your schooling, you have done so through an incredible feat of endurance. You are probably reading at a level several years behind your actual grade. Likely you have repeated at least two or three years of schooling. More than half of your peers have already dropped out. You work incredibly hard: you and your classmates come to morning classes at 6:30 for an hour until school starts at 7:30. You walk home at 3pm and are back at school at 6pm to do evening classes until 9pm- seven days a week. It’s difficult- some teachers do not teach frequently; some subjects do not have teachers at all and there are only a few textbooks for every subject, so you share them with your classmates.

In March, suddenly, your school closes indefinitely. At home, you do not have access to any learning materials. But your school was part of an Axium initiative. You find out that there are WhatsApp revision groups. You borrow your older sister’s phone and spend your evenings on Whatsapp groups doing revision – using voicenotes, screenshots, and taking pictures of your work and sending them in. Some of your lessons are taught by teachers from your school – others are taught by volunteer tutors. A little later, Axium has arranged for your own school phone and data to help with your work –you no longer have to negotiate with your sister to use hers. Your teachers send you links to resources that don’t cost any data. A social worker from Axium calls you once every two weeks to find out how you are coping.

Not only are you connected to your classmates and your teachers – your world has opened up to tutors from all around the world helping you to get through, and instead of one shared textbook you have access to more revision materials than ever before. This can be overwhelming at times and the road is still hard– but you have more lifelines than you could have previously imagined.

And that’s how we started –

- With a R280 ($17) Kicka phone;

- Subject WhatsApp groups run by teachers from the school, as well as tutors: retired teachers, volunteer teachers, teacher interns and student teachers; and

-Optimizing the cost of WhatsApp data bundles, resolving access issues through reverse billing, championing zero-rating of sites, and starting to curate resources for the Axium data-free LMS.

What was the pedagogy behind WhatsApp teaching that was so powerful?

Learning is, at its very heart, relational. WhatsApp lessons foregrounds the relational element of teaching and learning, whilst expanding the possibility of who the teacher is and what curriculum content a student can access. But technology in this context does not try to replace the building of a relationship with a teacher. Instead, it uses a familiar and social platform which grounds learners and makes it easy for them to adapt learning in this new way to their pre- existing context. And, specifically, in this time where it was not only curriculum coverage that mattered but also the feeling of being connected to school and that their future will not disappear – this kind of teaching provided a lifeline.

Community based learning for younger learners.

While older students have been engaging with learning over whatsapp and text, our remote learning strategy has been different for learners in the foundation phase. We have drawn on the capacity of community based facilitators to communicate and support caregivers to deliver learning at home during the lockdown period and beyond.

As a grade R to 5 learner, during the early phases of strict lockdown, your mom, granny, uncle, big brother or aunty would receive a series of whatsapp or text messages weekly, giving a story to read to you and a variety of numeracy and literacy activities and games to do each day, ranging from counting rocks and twigs to singing songs and answering questions about a story. Your Nobalisa (community based facilitator) - who lives a few minutes walk from your house - would text and phone your caregiver to make sure they understood the activities, and to find out if you did them or not. Later, when lockdown lifted a bit, you would go weekly in a group of less than 10 other children in your neighbourhood and do the same activities in the yard at your Nobalisa’s home, complete with your special Axium mask, hand sanitizer and social distancing. When schools reopen, the same Nobalisas will be in your classrooms, supporting teachers and working with you and your peers in small groups - using the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach.

What does this mean for the future?

We know that in many ways, COVID19 did not teach us anything new about our society- but rather shone a spotlight on the pre-existing lines of social fracture, the great inequalities in our education system. But there is so much opportunity in what we’ve learnt: in trying to address the lost days of school this year, we have found ways to start to address the lost years of learning most students face.

Through these interventions we are beginning to develop strategies that may free us from some of the strictures of the curriculum and timetable, help to better manage ongoing disruption and level teacher quality in remote area. While we are only just beginning to explore the relevance and potential of distance learning with the right tools and technology for our context, we are optimistic about the implications this may have in rethinking where and how learning happens beyond the pandemic.

Access the full presentation here.



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