COVID-19 has changed our education system – whether it is for the better, is still to be determined. The pandemic has forced people across the world to stay at home and take up online learning as a solution to continue with their school and academic studies. While we want to be optimistic and believe that the tech solution of online learning will ultimately affect a positive change in our country’s complex education system, to date it has primarily shined the spotlight on deep inequality in terms of having access to connectivity and hardware.

Challenges in low-income communities

The reality remains that the educational gap between children of the rich and middle class, who are mostly located in urban areas and big cities, and children based in townships and rural communities will be even bigger despite all educational online efforts. The main challenge we are facing is how to ensure that online education initiatives are driven by an inclusive approach, one whereby everyone can truly benefit in South Africa.

Our school system already carries historical inequalities and pre-existing challenges such as language, lack of funds, infrastructure and resources, all playing a role. Digital transformation can only be achieved if government considers various solutions to issues such as connectivity, expensive data costs, skills development, hardware access, as well as contextual multilingual digital learning content.

Many of our schools have little or no technology facilities, together with teachers that have varying digital skills and training. According to UNESCO, nearly 90% of students in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers and 82% lack internet access.

Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education said in a statement; “Access to technology and materials needed to continue learning while schools are closed is desperately unequal. Likewise, children with limited learning support at home have almost no means to support their education.”

For many of our school children, simply being able to get to school and receive what is sometimes their only meal for the day is a prerequisite for any effective learning to take place.

Impact of print on the education system

Physical books remains a fundamental educational resource in schools who have limited to no access to digital solutions. Access to books for academic purposes is critical for South Africa. We simply cannot risk intensifying the literacy challenges we already face within our country and in that, the delivery and availability of physical books remain essential so that we can continue to build a reading nation.

Benefits of print in education:

  • Extremely portable – Print materials can be used in any location.
  • High comfort level – Most students are very comfortable using print materials to learn.
  • Cost-effective – Print materials can be created and duplicated with little expense.
  • Readily available – Many distance learning courses can take advantage of existing textbooks, thus saving the time and expense of creating custom materials. You also don’t need special equipment to be able to use printed material, and you can access printed material even during loadshedding.
  • Shareable – Print materials can be easily shared amongst students and even across classrooms.
  • Memorable – Students are more likely to remember hardcopy material as multiple senses are being used such as the sense of touch, sight and smell.

Aids concentration – When reading print, you are more likely to concentrate on what you are reading, and therefore more inclined to finish what you are reading. When it comes to education, most students prefer a physical book when learning as it is easier to comprehend.

Difference between reading paper books and e-books

A new study published by the journal, Pediatrics, suggests that toddlers who read from a screen are less likely to interact with their parents than those who sit with a traditional book.

Researchers from the University of Michigan had parents read similar stories to their two-and three-year-olds in different formats which included a traditional print book, an e-book on a tablet, and a more enhanced electronic version with animation and sound effects. The interactions were recorded in order to determine and study the verbal and emotional interaction. It was established that the printed books generated more interaction between the parents and children and created more dialogue as the images and story were discussed.

COVID-19 has also contributed to an alarming rise in screen time as children use any digital device at their disposal for learning and entertainment purposes. This in itself has devastating effects such as significantly more young children starting to suffer from myopia (short-sightedness).

In conclusion, there will always be benefits of both online learning and physical books. We do however need to be realistic and acknowledge where we are as a country. Currently if our government schools did not have access to printed books, there will simply be no education.