Steering through strange times: self-directed learning as a survival skill



South Africa, like much of the globe, is being continuously rocked by the choppy, uncharted waters of COVID-19. Its variants, popping up like ominous whack-a-moles, add to the chaos. We can no longer trust the consistency of the structures around us. With shifts in lockdown levels, the scope of permitted activities fluctuates as establishments close, open or function somewhere in between. People are mainly relying on their individual capabilities to regain a sense of normality within their lives. The pandemic has demanded a drastic increase in self-reliance from one group in particular: high school students.

In the face of frequent closures, many schools have adopted a hybrid teaching approach of in-person and online classes. Charles Arineitwe is a teacher at Gadra Matric School in Makhanda, an education NGO that helps students improve upon their matric results for specific subjects. Arineitwe explains that Gadra employs a blend of online and contact learning. Some days of the week are online, some days are face-to-face. Arineitwe describes how students find themselves alone with their own work more and more. “The onus is on them to put effort to cover their work,” he says.

This shows a shift from traditional, teacher-directed learning to self-directed learning. Effective self-directed learning, as explained by Malcolm Knowles in his book Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, involves students taking the initiative, identifying their learning needs, setting up learning goals, selecting and implementing learning strategies, evaluating outcomes and making conscious use of available resources.

Typically, it is teachers who make decisions about learning content, goals, assessment and strategies. The self-directed learning approach requires the students to make decisions about these processes. In addition, self-directed learners know the importance of having sufficient content knowledge and can apply this to problem-solving situations. Self-directed learners realise the need to do this for the sake of their own development.

Sfiso Mahlaba, lecturer at North West University, is part of a research unit on self-directed learning. In his article, ‘Reasons why self-directed learning is important in South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Mahlaba explains that the traditional role of the teacher is “to transmit content to students and regard the level of absorption and reproduction of content as learning”. However, students should be empowered with the ability to direct themselves. There needs to be a shift from passive teaching, where facts are regurgitated without interrogation, to active teaching, which encourages participatory, reflective responses. Mahlaba describes the knowledge self-directed learners possess as “a product of their learning efforts rather than the permanent plague of some authoritative voice instilled by the teacher in the classroom”.

Self-directed learners are self-motivated, autonomous, curious, disciplined and value their own learning. However, learners still require certain support systems to facilitate the enaction of all these qualities. The Eastern Cape matric pass rate was 68% in 2020, just above the bottom-ranking Northern Cape (on 66%). This is no surprise considering the incompetence of the provincial Department of Education and the fact that an estimated 72% of the Eastern Cape population live below the poverty line. Many learners here are left even further behind in times of online learning. Arineitwe explains that his students do not have access to laptops, the Microsoft suite or sufficient data.

Gadra makes use of Whatsapp for online teaching, considered the most accessible platform given the prevalence of smartphones. However, it does not solve the issue of data, and whilst there may be a household smartphone, students do not necessarily have an always-on-hand personal smartphone. Arineitwe says that there is not much his students can do on their own, and very few are managing at this time.

The Vuli’ndlela programme, established by the Rhodes University Community Engagement division, shows the profound impact of the provision of self-directed learning support tools. These tools include free access to tutors, mentors, data and SD cards packed with a wealth of educational material. Makathembi Dendera has been involved in the Vuli’ndlela programme as a parent for two years. Her daughter is in Grade 12 and attends Ntsika High School.

Dendera describes how Vuli’ndlela was especially helpful during the hard lockdowns and allowed her daughter to “carry on like normal” with her learning. This involved the help of readily available tutors, data packages and the SD card content. Dendera describes that her daughter as an increasingly independent learner who makes full use of the opportunities provided by Vuli’ndlela. She directs her own learning, uses the material to study for exams and contacts the tutors she needs. Her mother proudly mentions that she understands the content better than her peers and spends time helping them.

Vulin’dlela coordinator Thandie Mqowana (centre) delivers SD cards to Ntsika High School earlier this year. Photo: Dylan Coetzee

Zizipho Ngoqo, a Grade 12 learner, describes the programme’s positive impact on her studying. She explains that the SD cards have helpful material, including videos, which she can replay at any point there is something she does not understand. Ngoqo says that Vuli’ndlela has made her a more self-directed learner in her final year, which has helped her manage the effects of the pandemic, especially school closures. “Vulin’dlela allows me to make myself understand, preparing me to learn on my own without depending on someone else,” she comments. However, she also says that it is not easy to study on her own without the teachers close by to answer her questions. She has to motivate herself and get in touch with the tutors when she needs help. Ngoqo says she has learnt that she can think for herself, and concludes, “It’s nice to know that you can actually help yourself.”

The pandemic and ensuing clumsy shift to online learning certainly present challenges. The responsibility placed on the shoulders of learners, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, is enormous. The skill of self-directed learning could not be more critical. The approach to learning as a way of living translates into the ability to adapt. Self-directed learners recognise weaknesses in new systems, take initiative to minimise these and maximise advantages. Self-management is a requirement across all universities and professions, meaning that schools should introduce these skills as early as possible.

The beauty of Vuli’ndlela, which is sadly lost on the provincial department, is how the provision of practical, simple tools can empower students to think for themselves, learn by themselves, and ultimately succeed due to their efforts. The stories of Vulin’dlela students will be vastly different to those of other students because of one thing: opportunity. Once the door has been opened, the rest is up to them. True to Knowles’s belief, self-directed learning is necessary for survival in a world where nothing is guaranteed.

Digital empowerment comes in small packages. Photo: Dylan Coetzee


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