Last week most schools and tertiary institutions in the country closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with it being declared a national disaster by the president. For some learners, mainly those in private schools, closing a couple of weeks before the Easter holidays began means some schoolwork is yet to be covered.

This is particularly important for those in Matric, for whom any wasted days not getting through the required curriculum can prove detrimental.

It’s why we’ve thought that more schools need to be turning to online tools and platforms in order to assist teachers to deliver the necessary lessons, and help learners stay on track for the year.

One school doing precisely that is St David’s Marist Inanda in Sandton, which is leveraging the tools freely available on platforms like Google Classroom to help students during this time.

We spoke to the school’s director of IT, Leo Stagg, and teacher, Bruce Eyles, to find out what solutions are being used, and how it’s helping students who cannot be on campus.

A unique opportunity

Eyles tell us that the school has been heavily punting the use of tools like Google Classroom, with many teachers embracing the technology as a new way to engage with learners, and provide assistance when normal school hours do not permit.

“I’ve been pushing for many of the teachers to adopt digital education at the school, and enlighten them as the potential that it has, as well as how it can be used as a supplementary tool to what they do in the classroom,” he says.

He adds that some teachers have been a little wary of technology and digital education in general, but the COVID-19 has forced a few to quickly adapt to the changing environment.

“Like most human beings, they were reluctant to move away from old habits. Some move more readily than others, and this situation has really forced people to move in that direction,” he adds.

Looking at the tools that the St David’s is employing, both in the Prep School and High School (College), Stagg and Eyles have found the full Google Classroom suite helpful, along with freely licensed (up to a point) tools like Explain Everything and Screencastify to share content with learners.

“At the moment our main platform is Google. All our material, all our assignments, and anything to do with classwork, that will be done on Google Classroom, right the way from Grade 00 all the way to Matric,” explains Stagg.

“In terms of any live streaming, we’re using Google Hangouts. This is for information specific to the classroom, and where the teacher will create a Hangout, will invite their 20 or 25 kids into the Hangout, and they will meet once a day depending on the subject and curriculum for the teacher to deliver a live session,” he adds.

For larger sessions outside of the normal classroom setup, Stagg notes that Google Meets has proven popular.

“The nice thing about Google Meets is that up to 250 people can take part in a session, and up to 1000 people can actually view it. So if a teacher wants to deliver course content to an entire grade (~130 students), and they would then have the option to record that session for those learners who may not have internet at home,” says the IT director.

Connectivity still a hurdle

This brings us to an important aspect that the pair have acknowledged, as being at a private school brings with it several advantages.

“We’ve learned in this process that connectivity is perhaps the biggest hurdle facing any school at this time. Yes, we’re fortunate to be in the situation that we’re in, and it shows that perhaps more needs to be done at a governmental level to address this need,” Eyles highlights.

For some of the students who are attending via a bursary or do not have connectivity at home, however, these digital education platforms are not easily accessible, and in those cases, the school has had to reach out to partners to assist.

This saw St David’s talk to the likes of Afrihost to help secure and set up wireless routers, so that students had the necessary internet connectivity to continue learning online.

“Prior to this, our Foundation has been able to give all of our bursary boys iPads so they can continue learning, and now we’re working to give them 4G/LTE connectivity. We’ve got Afrihost as a partner, and we’ve identified the 28 boys (both in the Prep and College) that require LTE routers, which we’re in the process of getting to them,” says Stagg.

When asked about whether such an approach is feasible at public/government schools, both are optimistic, but are aware that connectivity in particular remains a challenge. If that hurdle can be adequately addressed, then digital education is certainly possible.

As such COVID-19 has forced educators to be creative in the way they teach students, and digital education solutions have provided the necessary tools to get that done. It should therefore be interesting to see how many other schools adopt a similar approach and learn from St David’s, if the national disaster status persists or intensifies.

“We’re working up until the 8th of April, and then we will have a holiday break as outlined by ISASA. During that time our students will not be expected to do anything, with the exception of Matric boys who may have work that needs to be done. There will be support given to them by our staff over that period,” notes Stagg.

“The way we’re delivering classes won’t change for any foreseeable future. If we have to run for the rest of the year like this, we will,” he concludes.

Whether other institutions can say the same, remains to be seen.

[Image – St David’s Marist Inanda]