Promaths, Investec’s flagship programme, was repurposed during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 to help grade 12 learners access educational resources during hard lockdowns and other challenges. The Promaths Online iteration was so successful that grades 10 and 11 were subsequently added to the service offering. Investec and its implementing partner, the Kutlwanong Maths, Science and Technology Centre, share some key lessons from a turbulent two years.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to massive, widespread disruption in the education sector. With hard lockdowns causing schools to close in 2020, and subsequent pandemic measures like rotational class attendance preventing learners from accessing the resources they were accustomed to, educators found themselves turning to technology as never before – some using unfamiliar platforms for the first time. This, too, proved challenging, with bouts of load- shedding scheduled by Eskom, and many teachers and learners grappling with access to devices and connectivity issues.
Investec had rolled out its online pilot programme known as MobiTuta prior to the pandemic in partnership with Tuta-Me, but when the first lockdown was implemented in March 2020, it was decided to expand on this service offering and build the Promaths Online offering. Originally piloted to provide tutorial support to non-Promaths learners in township and rural schools, the programme provided the ideal platform to develop Promaths Online to assist all grade 12 learners who were at risk of falling behind in the curriculum. The programme proved so successful that it was decided to onboard grades 10 and 11.
Digital and pedagogical training for teachers
Going ‘online’ was a major undertaking. The first challenge to overcome was to ensure that both teachers and learners had access to devices, since it was envisaged that all classes would be conducted virtually. This meant that teachers would need to shift from ‘chalkboard’ to digital lessons. This involved some pedagogical training, since many teachers were not accustomed to developing teaching material that could be uploaded on a virtual platform.
Most of the 400 teachers involved – 140 of them teaching grade 12 and 260 of them teaching grades 10 and 11 – had access to cellphones and laptops, but second-hand laptops were sourced if teachers did not have them. Teachers also had to learn how to use devices with styluses so they could write out equations.
Many teachers were not used to technology and fear of the unknown caused some of them to resign from the programme. Of those who remained, they were taught to use the platform virtually, which was a hurdle they managed to overcome, despite the fact that they only had a week within which to learn how to use the platform. Some of them needed multiple sessions to learn how to navigate and use the different features of the platform.
Because Investec particularly wanted learners to feel that some aspects of their educational experience were familiar, they set out to replicate classroom conditions. Learners would log in to see their regular educators teaching in the environment they were used to, which provided a sense of continuity.
Kutlwanong Centre initially adhered to its regular schedules, but this proved a problem when almost 2 000 learners tried to log on to the programme simultaneously. The platform’s operating system lagged, so it was decided to split learners into two separate groups so they could log on at different times. Teachers who experienced connectivity issues could likewise switch between Kutlwanong Centres and, in this way, learners were able to engage with their own teachers as well as other excellent teachers in the programme.
The curriculum itself remained the same although there were adjustments to the way it was covered. In addition, learners were able to take advantage of live online tutoring in subjects other than maths and science on the MobiTuta platform, which also provided access to curriculum-aligned content like textbooks and past papers.
Connecting learners despite the challenges
Getting learners onto the platform proved challenging, particularly as there was no clear idea of how many learners owned or had access to devices. Kutlwanong ran an SMS survey, but because some contact details had changed it was necessary for Kutlwanong Centre managers and teachers to visit learners at their homes. There, they found out whether the learners were able to join online classes, and whether they were in fact keen to do so. Fortunately, most were eager to participate.
Learners in urban areas did not struggle to access devices, with their family members largely able to assist them by buying or lending them devices, but learners in rural areas were not as fortunate. Kutlwanong investigated whether they could source sponsored tablets for those learners. A further challenge was persistent load-shedding, which resulted in some learners being unable to attend the classes. However, live teaching sessions were recorded so learners could access them at any time.
Investec managed to secure a reverse billing arrangement from network providers, meaning learners did not have to pay for data. However, it took some time to negotiate this, as many educational institutions attempted to have their platforms zero-rated.
Learners were enthusiastic about the transition to a wholly virtual platform and voiced an interest in continuing with online learning in future. A blended learning approach also worked well when schools were able to reopen – of the 108 mathematics and 108 physical science sessions conducted during the programming, 58 were conducted online and 50 were conducted face to face.
Saving the academic year
Promaths Online was instrumental in saving the academic year for grade 12 learners in 2020. The platform supported a total of 1 849 learners in 2020. Of these, 1 737 completed the programme and 90% received a bachelor pass. One learner scored 100% in mathematics, eight scored 100% in physical science, 130 scored between 90% and 99% in mathematics and 129 scored between 90% and 99% in physical science. One learner was recognised as the third top national achiever in physical science, and 35 were recognised as top achievers at provincial awards in four provinces.
This has motivated Investec, the Kutlwanong Centre, and education providers The Learning Studio and Media Works to further explore the potential of the platform, which is a high-touch cost-saver that is clearly delivering impact.
The next challenge is to increase access and create a more seamless user experience, thanks to feedback from teachers and learners. The appetite for virtual learning is enormous, but barriers to entry must be overcome before such a platform can truly deliver on its great potential. Investec aims to overcome these barriers and continue to deliver a programme of exceptional quality.