Digital school expands to TV

The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) Lockdown Digital School has expanded into community television, as the Department of Basic Education (DBE) revises its National Recovery Plan, after postponing the mid-year rewrite of matric examinations, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The online learning school, which has gained 70 000 active online learners since inception three weeks ago, is an initiative by coding non-profit organisation Africa Teen Geeks, in partnership with the DBE and the Sasol Foundation, and offers online classes for grade R to grade 12 learners in SA.

The initiative has embarked on an expansion plan to reach an even bigger audience, partnering with two DStv channels – 1KZN (261) and Soweto TV (251) – to make the Lockdown Digital School available to young TV viewers from today.

This will be in addition to the classes hosted via the Africa Teen Geeks social media pages, Facebook, Twitter, YouTubeand its Web site, under the supervision of Amanda Calitz, lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Department of Occupational Therapy.

Governments around the world have closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, withover a billion students worldwide unable to go to school or university, according to the World Economic Forum.

The community TV expansion comes as government urges parents and teachers to continue supporting pupils in utilising various educational platforms, with no clear time frame as to when the coronavirus schools shutdown will be lifted.

Media reports based on a leaked National COVID-19 Recovery Plan drafted by the DBE state that if the lockdown is lifted, pupils in grades 12 and seven could be the first to return to school on 6 May, while Grades 11 and 6 are planned to return on 20 May. All the other grades are expected to return in June and July.

However, in an interview with Newzroom Afrika, DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga explained the proposed dates were part of a draft framework for a curriculum recovery plan and no dates have been finalised as yet.

“While these were dates proposed earlier, we don’t know if they will be confirmed because the discussions and deliberations are still ongoing, and no dates have been confirmed at this stage. Cabinet has stressed the importance of further engagement on the plans put forward by the different educational clusters, to be carefully considered.”

Mhlanga noted that when president Cyril Ramaphosa and the National COVID-19 Command Council lift the national lockdown, school life will go back in phases. “We need to ensure our 13 million learners and the teachers are comfortable to go back to school and prepare for a new normal such as maintaining social distancing inside the classroom,” continued Mhlanga.

This week, the DBE is expected to present the final proposed National COVID-19 Recovery Plan, which outlines scenarios with recommendations for the rest of the year, on when grades will resume and how schools will deal with social distancing.

Growth in online education

The STEM Lockdown Digital School says it has witnessed growth in demand from learners and parents, recording the biggest one-day growth rate of 11 522 users: 7 176 on Zoom and 4 346 on YouTube, with the most popular subjects being Grade 8 Mathematics which had 496 participants and Science with 485. The initiative has added 20 more teachers, now with a total of 54 qualified teachers assisting learners free of charge.

In order to implement the programme, Africa Teen Geeks says it received financial support from the Sasol Foundation and IT services company Apodytes. The DBE, Umlambo Foundation, Microsoft and Independent Media also partnered with the initiative to provide content, technical and advocacy support. “Since the forced closure of schools, the DBE has sought innovative ways of keeping learners engaged in their school work,” says Seliki Tlhabane, chief director for curriculum enhancement: maths, science and technology at the DBE.

“We appreciate that our partners have come on board and explored creative ways of ensuring education continues during the COVID-19 lockdown. We hope that parents and learners alike will make use of the learning platform.”

The Lockdown Digital School has also introduced a digital literacy programme, which has celebrity ambassadors, such as DJ S’bu Leope, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, Pearl Modiadie, Penny Lebyane, Tumi Sole, Bonginkosi ‘Zola’ Dlamini and Germandt Geldenhuys, who have contributed their time and resources to read to the learners.

For years, the DBE has emphasised the importance of making online educational content accessible, so that learners can enhance their education while at home. Last month, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies announced a partnership with the DBE to ensure virtual learning is a reality during the nation-wide lockdown. Virtual classrooms have been set up on the DBE’s Web site and other platforms, providing current and relevant content inclusive of reading resources and e-learning portals.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation has offered several TV and radio channels that will be dedicated to education. Electronic readers have been made available for pupils via online platforms in partnership with Vodacom, MTN, Telkom and Cell C.

“The Sasol Foundation welcomes Africa Teen Geeks’ partnership with pay-TV service provider DSTV, which presents a more affordable channel to reach millions of learners from low-income households whose families cannot absorb the cost of data required to access the lessons online,” says Vusi Cwane, head of the Sasol Foundation.

“As the largest gateway to the Gauteng communities and the rest of the country, we have a bigger mandate during these difficult times,” says Thabo ‘Tbo Touch’Molefe, CEO of Soweto TV. “Education of all is the most significant and we thank the team at the digital school and all its partners for working together with us.”