Online Learning: the Challenges, the Growth and the Triumph

Feb 8, 2021

"Education is the passport to the future for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today"- Malcolm X 

When South Africa went into lockdown just under a year ago, teachers all over the country, and all over the world, had to adapt to online teaching in a matter of days. It was challenging, but now, several months down the line, I believe that the teaching profession has seen a tremendous amount of growth and development.   

Even though teaching face-to-face is undoubtedly the ideal situation, our current online solution has changed the way we will teach for years to come. It has been a steep learning curve for educators worldwide, but luckily ESCA has enough resources coupled with a deep and enduring love for teaching, which has helped us overcome all online obstacles. 

Challenges continued to plague schools across the nation throughout last year, however we made it through the crisis created by this global pandemic - and continue to do so - with some motivation to spare. I would like to take this opportunity to write about what I have learned during my time teaching online and how the ESCA community has risen to the challenge of adopting a blended curriculum delivery.

While some students around the world have thrived with the shift to online learning, others did not.

1. The challenges

I am currently a student at Wits, and despite having a deep love of learning, I find online tuition dreadfully boring. During live video lectures towards the end of 2020, I found myself ‘zoning out’ and even once leaving my desk completely to make a cup of tea in the middle of a lecture. I therefore have first-hand experience of how difficult and trying it can be to learn and keep up with the syllabus whilst staring at a computer screen.

This is our first challenge as educators - keeping our learners engaged. This lack of engagement has also led to anxiety in some learners, as many struggled to keep up with the work. Although engagement is often a challenge in any classroom; a digital space presents its own unique challenges. I would rather teach a rowdy classroom over the complete silence of disengaged students' in an online lesson any day! Educators all over the world have experienced a new torture over the last year; that of coloured icons without faces on a computer screen, with nary a word being spoken - I like to call this ‘teaching the void’. We are very fortunate to have smaller classes at ESCA, as they are much easier to manage online, but keeping remote learners engaged online is a skill that teachers had to learn and hone on the fly, before achieving success.

Social isolation is the second most challenging factor in my experience, especially for adolescents (the age group that I teach) who naturally wish to connect more with their friends. This is very difficult online because although the learners see each other’s faces, they are not engaging in a natural and authentic way with each other. We can see this especially with shy kids, and the new learners who have joined this year, who have not yet developed friendships with their classmates. It has disrupted the entire natural order of talking in between classes and playing during break times. Before online learning, break time would involve passing a soccer ball back and forth. Now, when on break, learners lay on their beds (which is a mere meter away from their desks) and scroll through one app after another on their phones, adding even more screen time to their day.

These effects may very well lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, in even the most resilient of children. This is yet another complexity that we as teachers need to be cognisant of and try to manage as best we can.

There is much that we cannot control right now, so it is important to stay focused on what we can control and how we can contribute towards not only improving our learners' education experience, but their general wellbeing and mindsets as well.

2. Curriculum delivery

The first thing Team ESCA did when we went online was take stock of our available resources to facilitate online learning. Team ESCA had to engage in a sped up course in Google for Education, with most of our teachers achieving their Google Level 1 Certified Educator status. This is no small feat considering the rapid pace at which we had to adapt, learn and teach. Team ESCA is extremely proud that there has been no disruption to our curriculum delivery, considering that the very demanding Cambridge Curriculum did not adapt or change to accommodate for the difficulties around the pandemic. Although different subjects require different modes of presentation, ESCA’s teachers have found applications and extensions that work for them as we continually improve our blended curriculum delivery. Jamboard, shared Docs, and other applications in the Google Suite toolkit have become ubiquitous in almost every classroom at ESCA.

The single most important thing that I have learned during this challenging period is to never stop learning and never be complacent with the way I am presenting content and connecting with students. Since teachers the world over are in the same boat, many teachers and technology experts are kindly sharing their knowledge about online teaching and learning.

Valuable resources such as The New EdTech Classroom and The Cult of Pedagogy have become my almost daily go-to’s for new ideas and inspiration. We also have many skilled teachers at ESCA who freely share their own ideas and collaborate with other teachers. In this type of environment, we are not only surviving; we are indeed thriving.

3. Challenges Team ESCA has overcome

Challenges we face teaching online are, however, about more than just curriculum delivery. Engaging with the learners has taken on many forms, such as the sheer force of charisma (for our more outgoing teachers) to clever tech hacks, and having the learners work more collaboratively to help them stay focused on the material at hand. Using our new knowledge of the Google tools available to us has enabled us to become more organised and efficient in the digital world that we find ourselves in. It is clear to learners what we expect of them, and due dates and procedures for handing in work and assignments are clear. This helps learners organise their lives and their study schedules in order to make the best use of their time.

Our synchronous teaching model (where the teaching is in real-time and not, for example, only through videos which the children watch at their own pace) enables the learners to have a set routine and the closest possible approximation to ‘normal’ school.. Introducing Homeroom periods in 2021 helps to ensure that learners are awake and ready to start the day at 8 am sharp. Structure is extremely important in these uncertain times, although we still need to stay flexible enough to adapt when circumstances call for it. Teachers and administrators stay in close contact with our learners’ parents, who are still our co-educators to a large degree. It is only by pooling our resources and working together that we will give our learners the education that they deserve.

Finally, having taken care of our learners’ academic development, we also need to take care of their emotional well-being. We encourage teachers at ESCA to make time to talk to learners individually or in small groups in order to connect with them on a more personal level and give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings and struggles. I firmly believe that letting the kids know we are on their side and that we will get through this together is extremely important. Ice breaker activities at the beginning of class is also a valuable tool to help the kids connect to their teachers and to each other. Although this takes up class time, I believe the connection these activities foster is invaluable and will help the learners be more engaged, aiding their learning overall. Children and teenagers need as many caring adults in their lives as possible to help them make sense of life, especially now. We are also lucky enough to have the professional services of a psychologist, Dr Ashley Berman, at our disposal to help students navigate these trying times. The emotional well-being of our children has always been one of our top priorities.

All in All

Team ESCA recognises that to be successful our duty is not only to prepare our learners for their exams but also to help them develop into healthy, happy adults who will contribute meaningfully to the world around them. As a team, we have proven that we are stronger than our challenges and that no pandemic will stand in the way of Team ESCA delivering a world-class education to our treasured learners.