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.
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
role of the community in enhancing learning
activities in which teachers will take part provide opportunities for them
or think about their own teaching and learning;
different learning opportunities;
and share ideas;
problems and their possible solutions;
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
interaction adds value to the learning process. Other educators' ideas
spark off creativity and assist in reflection.
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.
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.
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
9 September 2001