25 June 2020 Volume :8 Issue :28

COVID-19 – A Catalyst for 21st Century Learning in SA Schools

COVID-19 – A Catalyst for 21st Century Learning in SA Schools
From left: Mr Michael Naidoo, Dr Angela James and Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches.

- By Mr Michael Naidoo, Dr Angela James and Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches

In this modern era of the 21st century the world is undergoing radical transformation with people experiencing the transformation in almost all spheres of life. The world is swiftly advancing through the Fourth Industrial Revolution and progressing rapidly to an emerging fifth one.

Over the last decade, the rate at which these changes have occurred has also greatly increased. Globally, governments have come to understand that traditional content-based educational systems of the past do not embrace the knowledge, skills or practices required to function in an era of drastic global change and to adequately prepare learners for life in this era. Consequently, these governments have embarked on processes of transforming their educational systems to be aligned with the principles of 21st Century Learning (21 CL). Inherent in this transformation is the use of digital literacy and digital learning, as these are crucial to surviving the unprecedented global changes.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting quarantine and lockdown measures have forced many private and public schools alike into a digital space which is 21 CL aligned. This is evident from the shift to the use of digital platforms and online teaching methods through the use of cell phones, radio, television and the Internet.

The focus of 21 CL is the application of knowledge to new and different situations, rather than memorisation of knowledge merely through repetition (Lay & Osman, 2018; Varghese, Vate-U-Lan & John, 2019). Some of the 21st century competencies that 21 CL focuses on include creativity, critical and innovative thinking, social and emotional intelligence, global citizenship, civic literacy, cross-cultural skills, self-direction, self-management, lifelong learning, ethics, morals, values and communication, collaboration and information skills (Ariyani, Maulina & Nurulsari, 2019; Barrot, 2019).

21 CL combines competencies from both the cognitive and affective domains. It is also characterised by being cross-disciplinary, inquiry-based and learner-centred (Hines & Lynch, 2019; Shanmugam & Balakrishnan, 2019). In addition, the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in digital learning and the development of digital literacy has proven to be a vital component in creating innovative learning environments during the enactment of 21 CL (Mathew, 2018; Howard, O’Brien, Kay & O’Rourke, 2019). Some of the positive outcomes associated with 21 CL include increased learner participation, improved learner assessment scores, especially in higher order learning, and the enhanced work ethic of both learners and teachers (Kokare & Strautins, 2018; Bedir, 2019).

Effective school leadership is one of the cornerstones of the paradigm shift to 21 CL as well as the new field of digital learning. This is because school leadership has the potential to influence all individuals, structures and resources within a school, all schools within a region and all regions within the national educational system. Many of the leading countries integrating 21 CL have realised its critical importance in preparing learners for modern day life. These countries initiated changes in their educational systems as early as the late 1990s and some have reached the point of completely re-designing their curriculums, assessment methods and teaching practices (Moyo & Hadebe, 2018; Ariyani et al., 2019). South Africa, in comparison, has only recently embarked on the journey to 21 CL in the form of inquiry-based learning and ICT development.

South African private and government schools officially closed on 18 March, 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, schools did not have sufficient time to adequately prepare for teaching and learning during the subsequent lockdown which began on 27 March. This, in turn, was followed by immense uncertainty as to the duration of the lockdown, the restrictions to be imposed, the resources required and the way in which COVID-19 would impact South Africa on the whole. Initially, school leadership bodies believed that the lockdown measures would be for three weeks and that the missed teaching and learning time at school easily compensated for by shortening of the June holidays and/or teaching over weekends or extended school days. However, the lockdown period was then extended by a further three weeks, and schools have remained closed to most grades well into June 2020.

In light of the cumulative school days missed and the prolonged lockdown measures, some schools that were fortunate to possess the necessary digital and financial resources planned and implemented digital teaching, where no personal physical contact would take place. Private schools were at an advantage over government schools in terms of effective teaching and learning during the lockdown period, as they have access to digital and financial resources. The use of the digital space for teaching and learning entailed accessing applications such as Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Zoom and Seesaw as well as various social media platforms. 

During the lockdown period many schools have been positively affected, shifting into a more digitally-orientated teaching and learning space. However, the focus of the online teaching and learning has been centred on the delivery of missed theoretical content through the same content-based, memorisation approach that would be utilised during a normal school day. The driving forces behind the schools’ delivery of copious amounts of theoretical content was to complete as much of the syllabi as possible as well as perhaps wanting to pacify both parents and learners by presenting some form of on-going schooling.

In this haste to deliver content and appease parents, 21 CL has been largely ignored, not significantly contemplated, or not adequately implemented by schools over the lockdown period. In addition, the pertinent factors related to the interpretation and enactment of 21 CL or digital literacy and digital learning have not been considered. Leadership training and development for 21 CL or digital literacy and digital learning has also not featured during lockdown. This is evident because throughout the lockdown period 21 CL or associated topics such as inquiry-based learning or cross-curricular studies, have not been addressed by government, the private educational sector, or the media. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly and radically changed the mind-set of some stakeholders in education, especially where resources are available, from the traditional context of a schooling system to a digital one with infinite possibilities. The positive impact of the rapid increase of ICT in teaching and learning allows a unique opportunity for South African schools to accelerate the interpretation and enactment of 21 CL. It is, however, important to note the challenges experienced by many schools, learners, teachers and families.

Some of these challenges are related to the organisation of 21 CL training sessions under lockdown restrictions as well as the lack of time for 21 CL training and experimentation because the focus is now on syllabus coverage, assessment and achieving relative normality in schools whilst still following COVID-19 protocols. However, education leaders in the private sector and the Department of Basic Education could begin the process by starting to conscientise educational stakeholders about the basic tenets and benefits of 21 CL utilising digital literacy and digital learning through brief digital presentations, webinars, school-based workshops and articles. The challenges posed by the interpretation and enactment of 21 CL can be alleviated with the understanding that the process is a long-term one that is effected in stages over several years (Moyo & Hadebe, 2018; Hines & Lynch, 2019).

Schools should therefore move away from focusing on just the delivery of theoretical content though digital platforms to initiating the process of incorporating 21 CL. This should involve a strategically planned approach which consists of four critical components:

•    21 CL

•    Digital literacy and learning

•    General school leadership training and development

•    Specific leadership training and development for 21 CL

Each one of these components in this interpretation and enactment strategy of 21 CL involves the understanding of the following factors:

•    What is 21 CL?

•    The need for it

•    The global and South African context

•    Facilitating factors and methods of interpretation and enactment

•    Concerns and challenges

South African schools should thus use the positive outcomes of increased digital learning and transformed educational mind-sets resulting from the worldwide pandemic to catapult themselves into the global arena of 21 CL. There are challenges associated with the interpretation and enactment of 21 CL, especially under lockdown restrictions, but the challenges can be managed and overcome with sufficient time. It is important for South African schools to use the momentum generated from COVID-19 to initiate the transformation process.


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Mr Michael Naidoo is the Head of Student Leadership at Crawford Schools and a PhD candidate at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership.

Dr Angela James is a Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Science Education, School of Education, UKZN.

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches is an Associate Professor at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership.

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