Disruption to education was widespread in 2020 with generally very mixed outcomes as parents and communities struggled to provide the tools – and internet access – for learning to continue online.

An exception was Khula Education, an NGO operating among 15 schools in the remote Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift region of Zululand.

While national matric results were down 5% in 2020, KHULA schools saw an incredible 100% pass rate in English and in Maths with Shiyane Secondary School’s pass rate increasing by 13%, significantly above the district average. Grade 8 to 10 pupils saw an incredible 27% increase in average English marks and a 9% increase in average Maths marks over the course of the year. KHULA supported Primary Schools saw a 7% increase in Maths and English marks despite extensive Covid-19 disruption.

Without doubt, “the key to not only bucking the national trend, but also outperforming our own historical results was satellite internet,” says Debbie Heustice, director of Khula Education.

Lockdown presented a major challenge for the schools that KHULA supports in the uMzinyathi district. Neither teachers nor learners had laptops or i-pads to continue learning remotely. “And even where teachers and children had access to a computer, in deep rural South Africa there is only patchy internet signal on mobile phones,” says Heustice.

Khula’s initial solution was to conduct learning via WhatsApp groups. For most children, however, sitting at home with a study pack was no guarantee that learning would continue, “especially since few had access to smart phones, data is expensive and cell phone coverage is, at best, intermittent, in rural Zululand.

“This also meant that all the online resources that government had put in place to support education through lockdown were equally, “beyond the reach of most of our rural learners,” adds Heustice.

Then satellite internet provider MorClick, in partnership with YahClick (powered by Hughes), decided to do what it could to support the work of Khula Education through lockdown by providing three months’ free satellite internet.

“Little did MorClick know that this relatively small attempt to make a difference would deliver learnings critical to the future of education in South Africa,” says Heustice.

Overnight teachers could access resources, load and learn new programmes and connect with pupils via their phones or the internet. The sudden availability of strong and reliable uncapped internet also, “put us in a position to approach individual donors for i-pads,” says Heustice.

The i-pads are used for lessons on a rotational basis. Learners also situate themselves close to schools with free Wi-Fi to receive streamed lessons and interact with teachers via email or online on their phones. In the afternoons, the i-pads are also made available for self-study to students in KHULA’s afterschool programme.

“Some principals even encouraged local University students to use their school Wi-Fi to help them continue their studies online when forced to return to their rural villages when universities closed,” reports Heustice.

In addition, teachers have acquired new skills, like how to develop digital content and push this to learners online. WhatsApp marking is also a valuable new skill making a big difference. Principals also appreciated being able to receive circulars and send reports to the District via email, removing the need for extensive travel. Internet access has also taught teachers to access content from a variety of sources.

Being able to conduct school and district meetings, stream lessons remotely, and guide and interact with individual learners online or via email also means that every day the KHULA teaching team can reach many more teachers and learners across the district. “We can be with one school virtually even though we are physically teaching at another,” says Heustice.

In short, satellite internet access has expanded the reach, capability and quality of Khula’s teacher and learner support, “reaching far more teachers and learners than before Covid-19 – and, what we didn’t expect – achieving better results,” adds Heustice.