Major telecommunications companies MTN, Cell C and Rain have zero-rated – provided free internet browsing for – an online maths education programme that features a combination of the recently revised curriculum with puzzles and problem-solving activities, competitions, games and weekly challenges to keep learners busy, connected and engaged.
This decision followed the forcible closure of schools in the Covid-19 pandemic’s local lockdown restrictions, which compounded learning challenges even further for the notoriously underresourced youth in some of South Africa’s largest townships.
Launched in 2008, the OLICO Maths Education Programme has provided effective and increasingly popular after-school tutoring and training, part-funded by the Datatec Education and Technology Foundation, with the programme actively working in Alexandra, Diepsloot, Bosmont, Dunoon and Heideveld, and partners using OLICO maths content are working in Soweto, Ivory Park, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and deep-rural Eastern Cape. Twenty matriculants from last year’s cohort in Diepsloot achieved Bachelor-level (50%) maths passes, placing them in the top 20% of maths performers nationally.
“It’s well-documented that knowledge retention suffers over school holiday breaks during normal times,” says Andrew Barret, co-founder and national coordinator of OLICO. “So there is a real concern for the damage this lockdown is doing, especially on grade 8 and 9 learners who are only scheduled to resume school in August – that’s why remote-support through WhatsApp and zero-rated educational sites, like ours, can be a vital lifeline.”
The Covid-19 adaption is a tools- and resources-based programme accessed online, via WhatsApp and through an Android app. Teachers and learners actively engage with each other every day via these platforms. Tutors call or message the learners each morning, and then track their progress through WhatsApp or online.
The free online version of the programme features more than 28 000 interactive questions and 376 tutorial videos, worksheets for sharing, tutoring and discussion over WhatsApp, and a fun, time-based activity designed to build number fluency in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division which is suitable for all grades. Logic puzzles promote problem-solving and creative thinking, while a senior-phase mathematics summary guide featuring key mathematical concepts for grades 7,8 and 9 is downloadable for free.
“We have about 680 learners on WhatsApp, which is about 60% of the high-school learners we would usually work with,” says Barret. “Access to smartphone devices and data are the main barriers to access for the other learners. The three telcos have really helped us address one part of the challenge. We’re hoping Vodacom and Telkom confirm their interest, and we’re in the process of trying to procure entry-level smartphone devices.”
Twenty-nine high-school WhatsApp groups administered by OLICO took root over lockdown, with 301 484 WhatsApp messages exchanged, and 2,9 GB of WhatsApp data used for messages and worksheets. “Although these numbers may appear small, what’s remarkable is the sheer enthusiasm of our learners, determined to fulfil their dreams,” says Barret. “When one considers the massive challenges these teenagers face on a daily basis, one gets an inkling of how great their commitment and passion to a sometimes difficult and overwhelming subject may be.”
Datatec Group marketing and communications manager Wilna de Villiers says that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers are in high demand and maths is a critical subject in all these fields.
“We wholeheartedly support organisations like OLICO which over time is making a meaningful difference in addressing the real need for adequately equipped school leavers who can eventually fulfil critically-needed STEM careers in South Africa,” says de Villiers. “Even during this exceptionally trying time learners are showing perseverance and fortitude in accessing tutoring and training which demonstrates their commitment to bettering themselves and their chances of a better future.”