By Khaya Tyatya
CAPE TOWN- Education systems the world over have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic with global education body UNESCO estimating that over 1.2 billion learners across 186 countries have been forced out of schooling as at end of April 2020. No one had ever imagined that a pandemic would force the global education community into closures for such a protracted time.
In South Africa face-to-face tuition has been stopped since March 18, with multi-modal "remote" learning (online, analogue and print) planned across the higher education and training system (HET). Furthermore, trimester and semester exams in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges have been postponed and the academic calendar is likely to go into 2021.
Given our new reality, it is an ideal time to discuss a few ideas about how TVET colleges can align to the changed world. These include the need to focus on digital literacy and the integration of technology with other forms of teaching and learning.
In a world dominated by technology, digital literacy skills are becoming more important for adaptability. Digital literacy is not just knowing how to use a digital tools, but is essentially about engaging critically with digital information . These skills include critical thinking, virtual teamwork and collaboration, creativity and digital citizenship.
Just as critical thinking requires students to evaluate information, make connections and apply them in a real word, digital literacy requires one to engage critically with online information which may come from thousands of sources. We require digital skills everyday to search for and use information for personal, work and classroom purposes. However, the dominance of technology has also created risks such unreliable sources of information, fake news, cyber-bullying and many other risks that can have long-term mental effects on students.
It is important that digital literacy becomes a key part of TVET pedagogy going forward. It needs to be promoted in pre-service training so that new lecturers have a good understanding of why and how digital information should be used. What we've seen with the switch to online learning in some HET institutions in the interim is the flooding of students, lecturers (and parents) to engage with a plethora of digital information.
Digital literacy skills will help lecturers and students navigate this period, but as move beyond the pandemic we need to ensure that it is embedded into teaching and learning.
The integration of technology into other forms of teaching and learning needs to be seriously considered going forward as well. What does this mean and how do we do it given the contextual realities of TVET colleges and the socioeconomic issues facing the student population?
The effectiveness of technology in teaching and learning has long been debated in education circles. There is a lot of evidence that shows that simply throwing a device at educators or a student can be regressive for meaningful teaching and learning. Additionally, the broader education system has not been able to make educators understand and embrace the power of technology in enhancing the learning experience, encouraging intuition and supporting classroom practice.
One of the key reasons is that many educators have not been taught using technology themselves, and have also not necessarily been trained to use it in the classroom. Although there are a number of TVET colleges using technology in teaching and learning, this factor will undoubtedly create difficulty for the majority of TVET lecturers to adopt technology and therefore adapt their current pedagogical skills to align specifically to the online remote learning approach.
On top of all of this, we have students who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, which will make online remote learning very difficult. The issue of physical space to study at home, the structuring of academic times vis-a-vis home duties (in particular in child headed and single parent homes), as well as access to devices, data and reliable connection add to the complex nature of remote learning.
In my own research in the TVET sector, I've established that although students may have devices such as tablets or laptops at homes, access to internet connection remains the biggest challenge.
Fortunately, the TVET system is thinking seriously and discussing alternative approaches, including the use of blended teaching and learning. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNESCO study has shown that vocational education systems globally use a mix of learning approaches including broadcast (China, Peru, Kenya and Bangladesh), virtual online lessons (Italy, Germany and France), WhatsApp videos (most European TVETs) and print materials (Nigeria) as interim measures, but are also thinking about the integrated use of these platforms going forward.
Vocational education is essentially a structured combination of theory and practice and blended learning can take many forms including face-to-face (after reopening) tuition, digitised content, virtual workshops simulations, WhatsApp video and messaging and structured home learning print materials. This will likely reduce the need for students to be on campus five days a week for face to face tuition even after lockdown has ended.
Going forward, both pre-service and in-service lecturers need to be supported to build a repertoire of pedagogical skills that will allow them to adapt to a changing world and incorporate individual learner experiences in their teaching.
For pre-service lecturers, universities have to come to the party in training new TVET lecturers using technology and how they can use it as medium for supplementing other forms of teaching and learning. For in-service lecturers, the TVET sector has to find innovative ways of training lecturers including looking at short courses, online resources, targeted support as well as learning from TVETs that are currently using blended learning approaches.
As the UNESCO study has shown, teaching and learning that incorporates a “blend” of approaches will undoubtedly be a strong feature of vocational education systems going forward. However, the role of the lecturer remains key. This pandemic has forced everyone including the TVET sector to reimagine the delivery of education. As a sector, we therefore need to accelerate our efforts to ensure that no lecturer or student is left behind.
Khaya Tyatya is an education practitioner and a PhD candidate in the education faculty of the University of Johannesburg. Views expressed are his own.