At the start of the pandemic, education sites across South Africa were forced to close – including Scalabrini’s English School and UpLearn Programme. This led to almost overnight changes to teaching methods and the Scalabrini teams needing to “get creative”. While efforts across the country were impressive, this time also highlighted the country’s huge digital divide. Both the English School and UpLearn teams adapted quickly to continue serving their students.  

Time for action

Shock was the resounding feeling between both programmes and their students at this time. Not dwelling on this feeling for too long, the teams moved into action. Some UpLearn students had laptops from 2019 and the team developed a Smartphone Guide for students using their phones, explained Tavia Viglietti, UpLearn’s Academic Coordinator.  

English School was quick to move their classes into the digital space through the use of WhatsApp. Rhoda van Schalkwyk, the previous English School manager, explained that at first an informal system was set up, but the team realised that they needed something more concrete. “We had a meeting, we put our heads together and we built a system.” Little did they know at the time, how far WhatsApp would increase their reach.  

Reflections from students:

Mbombo: It’s all about connection

Mbombo is a caregiver and started studying Healthcare Management with UpLearn in 2018. The pandemic brought hard times on him and his family as work became scarce. “Most of the time there were no patients for me. It was a very hard time.” Through these difficult times, Mbombo was able to continue his studies with UpLearn online, something he feels proud of. While the pandemic complicated Mbombo’s work life, emerging from these difficult years with a degree was something that gave him hope. 

Mbombo stayed touch with his classmates by helping them with their online projects if they were struggling and says that his UpLearn coach was always available to help him. This was important to him. “It [technology] connects people. It’s all about connection”, he says.  

He sees online learning as being “a very positive thing” and has welcomed the opportunity to continue studying with UpLearn online.  

Jho: English is key for foreigners in South Africa

When Jho arrived in South Africa, he quickly realised the importance of being able to speak English. He had studied English while still living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but found it difficult to be able to communicate once living in Cape Town. “It was difficult for me to express myself. The lack of words made things very complicated for me.” This was when he registered with English School.  

“English is key for foreigners here in South Africa. You may have skills and knowledge, but if you cannot communicate, it’s going to be very difficult for you to do what you want to do,” he explains.  

Jho has appreciated being able to continue learning English from home when the centre closed. Describing himself as a ‘people’s person’, he looks forward to finding a job where he can work directly with clients and put his new language skills to use.  

Celebrating the successes

Through the WhatsApp classes, English School has been able to reach students from across the continent. “We have students not only from Cape Town, but DRC, Somalia, Turkey and more!” says Rhoda. With English School being able to expand their reach, they have also seen “huge buy-in from teachers”, who are committing to longer terms. “A marker of success for the team has also been the fact that old students are referring people that they know to the school.” 

UpLearn saw the realities of the pandemic when students struggled to stay on track. “Many of our students lost jobs, which meant less money for data, needing to go look for work, looking after and feeding your children – all of these things are more important than studying.” At times, it was difficult for the team to keep students motivated, but they were able to get many of the students back on track and celebrated two graduation ceremonies. “We had students who could graduate alongside other students from all over the world,” she says. “This is the ultimate marker of success for us. This year was really hard, but students are still graduating! How amazing to look back on this difficult, historical year and to be able to say that “I got a degree in that year!” 

There is so much potential with education going digital, but with inequality in South Africa, there is a real risk of a technological division between people who have access and those who don’t. This has been an opportunity to take learnings from both sides. Both English School and UpLearn have embraced these learnings and continue to find ways to serve their students and adapt where necessary. Both teams are proud that they could continue serving students. A big learning to come out of this time was that “there is so much more to learning than curriculum. There are psycho-social benefits to students coming together in a physical place of learning.”