When University of Cape Town (UCT) student Ilyaas Amien started his maths tutoring service in 2017, he could never have imagined a time like this. COVID-19 has turned schooling upside down, leaving matrics especially vulnerable - and especially vulnerable in a pivotal subject like maths.
Amien is a medical student at UCT, having recently returned to the MBChB programme after completing an honours degree in neuroscience. He hopes to tackle a concurrent master's programme in neuroscience in 2021.
"My goal is to one day become a clinician scientist who connects the brain to the bedside," he said.
When Amien started Tutonic, a free, online maths tuition service, he had one aim: to support high school students around the country and bridge the gap between access and quality education.
"I wanted a platform to address the chronic lack of maths support for high school students."
Tutonic began with 50 students and now has 500 (a huge jump from last year's 300 students), and 15 student tutors; most are from UCT and all are volunteers. The organisation is endorsed by the Western Cape Education Department.
"Some of our pupils attend schools that have continued their academic project during lockdown; others have had absolutely no teaching time."
Anxiety and uncertainty are high, especially among matrics.
"Many students also have data issues, which make it difficult to access Tutonic at times. However, I get the impression that most students feel more at ease, given the resources that Tutonic provides."
Resources include concept videos that cover all the maths content from grades 8 to 12, quizzes and previous questions Tutonic has received from other pupils over the years, personalised support from a university student (pupils can submit questions they're struggling with), and weekly live sessions with a tutor for matrics.
"We also encourage teachers to use these as a teaching tool, to 'flip the classroom'."
"Tutonic has created over 1 000 maths videos (concept videos and tutor responses), now curated in the Tutonic Bank," said Amien. "We also encourage teachers to use these as a teaching tool, to 'flip the classroom'. Our aim is to make the teaching experience less didactic and more engaging."
This year Tutonic introduced live sessions where pupils can engage with a tutor via Zoom once a week. Pupils can also ask specific questions via the site and get quick answers from tutors. They have also formed a group for maths teachers to connect and share resources.
Lifeline for matrics
The organisation has been a lifeline for many struggling matrics.
Rita Alfonso, a matriculant at Holy Cross High School in the Western Cape, said the lockdown had been hard as a learner struggling with maths and without the physical interaction with a teacher. "Understanding new topics became hard. I joined Tutonic at the beginning of the year and was amazed that they have concept videos on every maths topic - and they have a tutor that really engages with the learners."
Sidney Dhladhla of J Kekana Secondary School in Gauteng said as Tutonic students they were motivated to practise maths, knowing they had tutor help. "Thank you for being patient with us and super understanding."
Nabeela Desai of Crescent Girls High School in KwaZulu-Natal said, "I joined Tutonic when school closed just before the country's lockdown. During this trying time Tutonic has really helped me in understanding maths concepts.
"The live sessions are very interactive, and I enjoy it personally because we are free to ask questions. Sometimes [it's hard] to ask your teacher many questions but ... I feel like [the Tutonic tutors] have the patience to answer as many questions as possible and they don't hesitate in repeating concepts. The concept videos are also very helpful in understanding old and new work."
She added, "Although I have not started calculus in school, the concept videos and Tutonic tutors have really helped me understand it. I feel that this programme is a very good and fun way of learning mathematics."
Help out if you can
As for the tutors, managing their time and resources in lockdown has been an added challenge - physically, emotionally and academically, said Amien.
"We're all being tested in various ways, some more than others. As one who has readily engaged with online learning through Tutonic, my own academic transition was perhaps much smoother than it was for other students. I also have an amazing support structure in terms of family, friends and the incredible team I work with at Tutonic."
Tutoring is made easier by Tutonic's asynchronous system; tutors provide direct support when it is convenient for them to prevent any clash with their university work.
"And because Tutonic has an extensive library of concept videos and past responses, tutors don't necessarily have to create new content for each question we receive.
"In many cases, our tutors refer the student to a previous video that explains the concept or question they're struggling with. This eases the burden on our volunteers and allows us to support many more students compared to conventional tuition systems."
Amien is appealing to university students who enjoy teaching maths (and have the means) to consider joining their platform as tutors.
"From your own home, you will be able to support hundreds of students across South Africa with mathematics."