Inspiring math students with a South African NGO’s blended-learning program

February 15, 2018 | by Katrina Bushko

Last November, at the 2017 WISE Summit in Doha, Qatar we presented our first white paper on blended learning outside the US, Blended Beyond Borders, and also had the opportunity to meet many great researchers, policy makers, and entrepreneurs making an impact in the global innovative education space. Among them was Jo Besford, director of the South African nonprofit Green Shoots – an organization making strides to scale blended-learning programs across South Africa.

Green Shoots’ approach

Green Shoots was founded in 2012 with a mission to enhance the quality of education through the use of innovative technologies. But the Green Shoots team knew that merely bringing in computers to schools alone wasn’t going to improve student learning. Their aim is to catalyze and support change from within the system for sustainability and cost effectiveness at scale.

To do so, they developed Maths Curriculum Online (MCO), focused on using data to inform instructional decisions. MCO features weekly quiz-based activities (Brain Quests), standardized School Based Assessments (SBAs) twice per term, and a structured homework system for use outside the classroom ([email protected]). All content is available in both English and Afrikaans and is aligned to the South African National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement for grades 3-9. Schools that use MCO also receive real-time data and analytics, continual professional development, technical support for both hardware and software, and a youth development program in donor funded projects.

The framework from a flagship school

The Blended Learning Universe had the opportunity to see MCO in-action when we visited Sonwabo Primary School last year. Sonwabo is one of Green Shoots’ flagship schools, having started using MCO in 2013.

Sonwabo’s blended-learning program revolves around MCO, used within a Lab Rotation model. Students complete Brain Quest exercises in a computer lab twice per week. Teachers use this data from the online program to inform instruction outside the lab by dividing students into groups based on their level for intervention and focused practice.

Over the past five years, teachers and administrators have realized how helpful a data-driven approach can be: data from MCO helps them to make better pedagogical decisions and plan for their class.

Credit: Sonwabo Primary School; Jenny White.

Credit: Sonwabo Primary School; Jenny White.

Is the program driving outcomes?

But does the data teachers receive through MCO actually drive outcomes? To find out, in January of 2016, Green Shoots teamed up with Comic Relief, a UK-based charity that aims to tackle inequality through a range of social impact projects. Together the two organizations launched a three-year project, evaluating MCO usage in 32 schools – eight schools in the Northern Cape and 24 in the Western Cape. Additionally, Green Shoots recently completed its own interim evaluation of the last two years of program implementation, which shows promising results. The results in this report draw from MCO data, student and teacher surveys, as well as discussion groups and interviews with students, teachers, principals, and district officials.

Green Shoots analyzed a range of outcomes. The first is understanding if MCO contributes to the quality of math teaching. One such indicator of this outcome is an increase in teachers’ interest in teaching math, which tends to vary among teachers who are not confident in their ability to teach the subject. However, based on its surveys, 90% of teachers using MCO reported feeling confident in their teaching and 80% reported feeling more enthusiastic about their math classes.

Green Shoots also aimed to measure students’ attitude toward, and engagement in, math. They found that the majority of students (97%) looked at their Brain Quest and SBAs scores after they completed the exercises. Ninety percent of learners set goals for themselves, and over a third (36%) recorded their scores as a means to track progress. These are albeit incomplete but encouraging indicators that MCO users demonstrate agency and self-efficacy through self-directed learning.

Preliminary academic reports have shown that in MCO schools, from 2015-17, 7% more students passed the Grade 6 Maths Systemic Tests, versus a just 0.9% increase in non-MCO schools (bearing in mind that most schools only started using MCO in 2016). Green Shoots also collected anecdotal reports of MCO’s impact on learning within schools from six department of education and district officials. Some officials noted that it was too early to gauge the impact that MCO has on student learning; however, others mentioned that there was a generally positive impact of the online curriculum. Indeed, an official at a district that had been implementing a MCO program for a number of years said that they had seen an 11% increase in grade six results. Green Shoots predicts that the longer a school uses MCO, the greater the impact it has on teaching practices, cultural values, and student academic achievement.

Green Shoots’ approach thus far shows promise. Their holistic model of curriculum, data analysis, professional development, IT support, and youth development is a unique approach that focuses on using technology as a means to drive student and teacher outcomes. We’ll look forward to digging into next year’s final report of the Comic Relief project to better gauge MCO’s long-term impact. In the meantime, check out our BLU profiles of additional schools adopting blended learning in South Africa here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.