Establishing communities of teachers and learners online in South Africa  
SchoolNet SA is an organisation formed to create Learning Communities of Educators and Learners that use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT
's) to enhance education. In 2000, it initiated a consultative process that has seen the development of a teacher development strategy that builds virtual communities of educators in South Africa. The resulting framework for teacher development is sensitive to the latest education policy development is South Africa. Such policy caters for the community of teachers in rural and disadvantaged communities by recognising their uniqueness, their immobility and their poor resource base for professional development.

The main focus of the teacher development strategy is to provide effective development opportunities for teachers who, through SchoolNet's projects, are exposed to computers and the Internet in the classroom for the first time. More often than not, the training that is provided to schools that receive computer donations, amounts to generic computer training and teachers are left unsupported once the training is complete. Furthermore, teachers who do learn how to use certain applications, use these for personal tasks, but do not know how to integrate these tools with the curriculum. SchoolNet's strategy of teacher development for ICT breaks the paradigm and strives to build communities of learners as a core activity in its training programme.

The concept of collaborative work in the educational environment is not well-developed in South Africa, not in the classroom, between classrooms and especially not between the classroom and the community. One of the strategies with the SchoolNet approach to educator development is to make use of online communities to introduce teachers and learners to the power of collaboration and the powerful learning experience that the community provides.  As a result of this we would expect other kinds of collaboration in the community to become more acceptable and part of the culture of learning.

The main policy factors that have influenced the SchoolNet strategy have been Open Learning principles, the Norms and Standards for South African Educators and the outcomes-based approach to learning. One of the most important principles that emerged was the need for flexibility of access to learning, flexibility of content and spatial flexibility. It is expected that educators should participate in development activities that allow them to continue practicing as educators.  Given the vast geographical distances between rural schools and training venues and the time-consuming travel that is involved, it became clear that rural teachers would always be less able to receive the development opportunities that their urban counterparts are able to enjoy.  A solution to this situation was sought and incorporated into SchoolNet's teacher development strategy.

The strategy relies on the formation and proper functioning of online communities of learners. A team of educators has developed teacher development materials that are CD-based. These materials consist of 7 modules (at this stage) that cover the integrated classroom use of ICT and the associated teaching and learning strategies that promote information literacy. Teachers across the country receive onsite introductory training on a scheduled day. This introductory training introduces them to the tools required for the distance learning process. These tools are mostly centred on the use of e-mail and word-processor-based reflective journals. During this training the teacher chooses and registers on an online database for one of the modules. Within 24 hours the teachers across the country are grouped in heterogeneous groups and allocated an e-mentor. This group of about 10-15 educators and one e-mentor then proceed to work on the materials over a 5-6 week period. The materials are designed for the learning to take place in community.

The role of the community in enhancing learning

The activities in which teachers will take part provide opportunities for them to: 

  • Reflect, or think about their own teaching and learning;

  • Experience different learning opportunities;

  • Invent and share ideas;

  • Share problems and their possible solutions;

  • Share resources

An important part of most activities is participating in online (e-mail) discussion with the group of your peers. The diagram below illustrates how this will work in practice. The materials direct the process and the activities direct the individual to plan the use of ICT, put the plan into practice and to reflect on the experience. Sometimes the teacher has to consult with the group before putting the plan into practice. Feedback to the group is always required after the reflection on practice. This process of sharing and the feedback that comes from the group is what we have come to call the community learning process. This community of learners provides a very effective and powerful learning experience.  In her paper Janet Thomson provides some insight into the effectiveness of this mode of learning in SchoolNet's e-mentor online training course.

Group interaction adds value to the learning process. Other educators' ideas spark off creativity and assist in reflection.

Pilot training in this mode was conducted in September 2000 in three provinces in South Africa.  The evaluation of the pilot was conducted by SAIDE (South African Institute of Distance Education). It confirmed the power of e-mail in helping to create the sense of community online. It was found that the lack of community could be problematic if a learner is isolated and lacking in confidence. Confidence was also affected by the recurring technical problems with the computers.

It was clear that the online community had been an attractive feature for these learners. This was strongly supported by feedback from the mentors. The community had two aspects to it. Firstly, it was social (friends were being made and communication continued beyond the pilot). Secondly, it was a learning community. It was an absorbing and motivating way to learn. Learners could not wait to get to their e-mail to read what the group had to say. The mailing list proved itself to be a simple and effective tool for creating a sense of community. This is especially effective where regular mailing list interaction is structured.

Using the Internet (the relatively simple process of e-mail mailing lists in this case) has meant that the learning community does not have to be in the same place at the same time. Online learning communities can link educators from all over the country. In the process this provides an opportunity to teachers to meet each other and support each other across cultural boundaries

G Roos
9 September 2001



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SchoolNet SA

last updated 29 October 2001