Category Archives: Education

Exploring managerial challenges in managing secondary schoolteachers’ stress: A qualitative analysis

Title: Exploring managerial challenges in managing secondary schoolteachers’ stress: A qualitative analysis

First author: Professor Anna-Marie (A.M.F.) Pelser
Research Professor, North-West University, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences- Entity Director – GIFT, Mafikeng Campus.

Corresponding author: Professor A.M.F. Pelser: HED (Home Economics, PU for CHE), B Com (UNISA), B Com Hons (PU for CHE), M Com (Industrial Psychology, NWU), PhD (Education Management, NWU)
e-mail: or

Co-author: Dr Eben Haeser Swanepoel
Orcid Id: 0000-0003-3205-5244
Postdoctoral Researcher, North-West University, Economic and Management Sciences, GIFT.
PhD: Psychology of Education (UFS), M.Ed Psychology of Education (UFS), Hons Psychology (UNISA), B.Ed FET (UFS)

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 7: 3


Teacher burnout is a challenge faced globally, impeding optimal teaching-learning from taking place. In this article, teachers’ stress was viewed in terms of its relationship with workplace stressors and through the lenses of organisational and individual management theories, as well as managerial and distributed leadership. Data were collected by means of in-depth semi-structured interviews with managers and teachers; these were audio taped, transcribed and data analysed by coding. Stress was omnipresent in the educational settings and manifested itself as a multi-dimensional phenomenon explained in terms of various leadership theories. Managerial leadership was a problem, where leaders or principals are seen as being commanding, controlling and authoritarian whilst showing an unwillingness to share power. It is evident from this study that teachers don’t take charge of their own stress but depart from this responsibility by keenly empowering the management team to manage their own and the teachers’ stress in both a preventative and corrective manner. Teachers prefer not to be involved with various organisational undertakings due to the presence of unwieldly hindrances in the guise of stressors which inextricably forms part of their professional working life. Distributed leadership is a multifaceted concept of leadership where the principal views it as his obligation to developing leadership aptitude by empowering others to manage their own stress successfully. Results indicated that in building a strong organisational climate, collaboration between employees will be key, shared goals achieved and leadership devolved enabling employees to become one another’s keeper, to foster participation in decision-making. A strong correlation exists between the two leadership theories and the practice of stress management in schools.


teacher stress, stress management; workplace stress; managerial leadership; distributed leadership


The issue of workplace stress has gained prominence in South Africa in the educational sector in recent years (Mapfumo, Chitsiko & Chireshe, 2012). Partially, the rate of stress experiences has been driven by the high rate of systemic changes, job security, performance appraisal and career expectations (Naidoo, et al., 2013; Mushoriwa & Dlamini, 2015). Although school-related stressors should be handled by school staff with managerial responsibilities, teachers themselves should also be involved in the management of their own stress. Coordinated management measures have the potential to minimise stress levels considerably at school level (Robbins et al., 2013). Different leadership theories can be employed to gain insight into the phenomenon of teachers’ stress management.

Problem statement

Even though stress is a universal phenomenon, Werner (2011) accentuated that most stress is experienced in work situations. Demands on educators and schools increase, which in turn leads to the prevalence of stress in the teaching profession. A certain level of stress is necessary for teachers to render an effective and professional service. Counter to this, excessive stress levels may lead to distress, poor teaching, poor decision-making, lowered self-esteem, low job satisfaction and a lack of commitment in terms of remaining in the profession (Grobler, Wärnich, Carrell, Elbert & Hatfield, 2002; Schroeder, Akotia & Apekey, 2001).

Research on stressors globally took place and a number of stressors were found. Bytyqi, Reshani, and Hasani (2010) conducted a general workplace survey in public organizations in Kosovo which examined employees’ levels of work stress, job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and the impact these factors had on each other. However, the findings indicate that a satisfied and committed workforce is not a guarantee for having low levels of work stress and vice versa. Examples of stressors include the lack of opportunities for career progress, lack of status or respect at work, work overload, instability, and lack of discipline among students in Macedonia and Turkey (Akhlaq, Amjad, & Mehmood, 2010). In another study, Van Dick and Wagner (2001) tested the theoretical model of teacher stress on a large sample of 356 German teachers using complex structural equation modelling. The results of the study revealed that workload led to stress reactions from the teachers, whereas principal support, beliefs of self-efficacy among participants, and use of appropriate coping strategies reduced their experiences of work-related stress. Other studies have reported stressors such as time constrains (Kyriacou, 1987), poor quality of relationships with colleagues (Troman, 2000), and large numbers of students (Nagel & Brown, 2003). In terms of stressor rankings, student behaviour is reported as the most stressful factor followed by staff support, relationship with parents, personal and professional competences (Paulse, 2005).

In South Africa, several studies have been done and it is evident from all that stress is an obstacle that causes teachers not to perform as effectively as needed (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2016; Jackson & Rothmann, 2006). Venter (2003) performed a study in George and found that low salaries are an indicator of teacher stress. Stressors which surfaced during studies have attributed educator stress to a lack of discipline, unmotivated learners, redeployment and retrenchment of educators, large learner-educator ratios and new curriculum approaches (Saptoe, 2000). Motseke (1998), in the Free State, conducted an investigation of stress among educators in township secondary schools to identify organisational, personal, interpersonal, and environmental stressors; other examples of stressors include role conflict, role ambiguity, discipline problems, time pressure, bad working conditions, self-respect, inadequate support from friends, family and colleagues, and low student motivation. Although much research has been done on stress in South Africa and even in the North West Province, scant research on stress has been done in schools / among teachers in the Mahikeng Area. Research done in the North West Province was done via quantitative research methods, and didn’t give teachers the opportunity to voice the actual stress they are experiencing and the solution to manage the stress they are experiencing.

In view of this conclusion, the question under investigation for this study was: How do teachers in the Mahikeng Area manage stress in their workplace?

In the forthcoming section the theoretical and conceptual framework will be dealt with and the various stress concepts be thoroughly elaborated on. The objectives will be stated and the research design, sampling, data generation and data analysis will be expounded. Trustworthiness and ethical considerations will be addressed. The findings and discussion thereof will be the evidence of rigorous research done on the ailment of stress. Recommendations will be proposed to remedy the current complacent riposte to the immense effect of educator stress.

The conceptual framework aims to define stress, identify various stressors, elaborate on research done on stress by various researchers in several countries and finally address the different perspectives on individual and organisational approaches to stress management.

Conceptualising stress and background context

Stress defined

Stress can be viewed from different angles. It can be a dynamic and complex process that forms part of the interaction between individuals and the activities in their lives (Phindela, Mothibedi & Smith, 2008). Werner (2011), in turn, views it as “the body’s response to anxieties and deviations that require it (the body) to adapt physically, intellectually and expressively”. Stress is prompted when a situation is seen as either a challenge or a risk. Although stress is a universal phenomenon, Werner (2011) emphasises that most stress is experienced in work situations.

Factors initiating stress

Often, stress within teaching is connected with organizational factors related to the way teachers are expected to work. A plethora of organizational factors contribute to stress among teachers: unreasonably set time frames, excessive bureaucracy, unrealistic deadlines and frightening inspection regimes (Montgomery & Rupp, 2005). One may also distinguish between stressors of an educator’s living and working environment, and individual stressors. The working environment entails the most stressors, amongst which are unfavourable working conditions, excessive workloads, organizational problems, and insufficient resources, lack of support and/or autonomy, and decision making. The working environment may also include physical stressors such as high frequency noise associated with teaching assignments, congested classrooms, classroom or school size, erupting violence among learners as well as administrative pressures such as lack of support from managers and the ambiguity of the teaching role. Individual characteristics include the unique traits of teachers such as personality, gender, age, demographics, ability to establish and maintain supportive networks, cognitive evaluation of stressors, coping ability, type of teaching position and work dissatisfaction (Hastings & Bham, 2003; Guglielmi, & Tatrow, 1998). Individual stress can also be linked to the compatibility between personal and educational values, ambition to succeed, the threshold of sensitivity, competitiveness, multiple roles for women teachers (parent, caretaker, housewife and teacher), and perfection (Bachkirova, 2005). One of the few analyses in the field of work-related stress in Macedonia is the comparative study of Eres and Atanasovska that explores the levels of stress among teachers in Turkey and their colleagues in Macedonia. Their findings suggest that working conditions as well as personal and social characteristics have an effect on teacher stress (Eres & Atanasovska, 2011).

Individual and organisational approaches to stress management

The phenomenon of stress is not only visible when viewed in terms of its causes and consequences, but also about the way in which it is managed (Ngidi & Sibaya 2002). Stress compels individuals and organisations to avoid or manage tension in organisations. This should be done by ensuring that organising, planning and decision-making are conducted in such a way that teachers are not subjected to unnecessary stress (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2016). According to Van Deventer and Kruger (2008) the management of stress is an important factor contributing to positive changes at behavioural, psychological, and physiological levels for educators. Bennett (1997) noted that stress is an everyday phenomenon. Nevertheless, certain measures can be taken by organisations to minimise the degrees of stress experienced by their employees. Stress management has both an individual and organisational character and is particularly discernible at school level in the working relations between different stakeholders such as teachers and learners, teachers and management staff, parents and teachers, as well as between departmental officials and school staff. The distinction made by Steyn and Van Niekerk (2012) of two stress management approaches, namely individual stress management and organisational stress management, is followed in this study.

Occupational stress is concerned with the individual and environmental pressures that workers experience with regard to their day-to-day activities in their workplaces (Werner, 2011). Individuals and organisations are compelled to take action, to avoid and to manage these pressures or stressors (Nahavandi, et al., 2015). In a school it is key that a teacher who experiences stress should enter into a relationship with someone like a principal who can assist in confronting his or her perception of the stressful situation.

Individual stress management

Steyn and Van Niekerk (2012) are of the view that stressor elimination in a work environment is in the first place the responsibility of the individuals themselves. Nahavandi (2015) contend that individual approaches to stress management serve to eliminate and/or modify stressors in the environment by changing perceptions about stressors, time management and planning, aspects of lifestyle and regular practice of relaxation techniques. According to Werner (2011) individual stress management has to do with the fact that we can adapt our perception to certain situations. Through cognitive restructuring, people can prevent irrational and negative thoughts and substitute them with a more positive and a healthy mental approach. This implies that teachers experience stressful situations in different ways and will always attempt to find mechanisms to cope in a stressful situation.

Lifestyle design forms an integral part of individual stress management (Steyn & Van Niekerk, 2012). Teachers have to examine their own lifestyles and be vigilant that their own behaviour and actions do not constitute stress. Aquinas (2009) says contends that time management is critical to subsuming successful stress management techniques. According to Robbins and Judge (2013) teachers should manage their stress levels actively by practising relaxation techniques and doing physical exercises on a regular basis There should always be a balance between work and non-work activities so that employees have either minimal-stress or stress-free lifestyles.

Stress management is also important for individuals because own concerns can be shared in a supportive environment. Steyn and Van Niekerk (2017) note that, “turning to others for support and assistance is one of the critical human responses to stress management”. Robbins and Judge (2013) support the latter view and note that “friends, family or work colleagues can provide an outlet when stress levels become excessive. Expanding your social support network provides someone to hear your problems and offer a more objective perspective on a stressful situation than your own”.

Organisational approaches to stress management

In organisational approaches to stress management emphasis is placed on the fact that stress can and should be managed in institutions by people in the system with managerial responsibilities (Bennett, 1997). Although individuals have to accept responsibility for managing their own stress certain measures should be taken in organisations to minimise the stress experienced by their employees (Robbins et. al., 2013). From an organisational point of view recognising and evaluating how stress is influencing the performance of teachers, is the first step in managing stress (Botha, 2013). Closely linked to recognising and evaluating the influence of stress is the clarification of roles and goal setting (Werner, 2011). Role clarification and goal setting are important in the sense that employees usually have an understanding of what is expected from them; knowing the expectations enables them to commit to the goals as well as to minimize their stress. Robbins and Judge (2013) suggest that organisational communication, redesigning jobs, sabbaticals, organisational culture, goal setting and employee wellness programmes can all be seen as forms of organisational stress management. Robbins and Judge (2013) mention in this regard that individual teachers perform better when they have specific and challenging goals and receive feedback on their progress towards these goals. Role clarification is also important in the sense that it promotes teachers’ understanding of what is expected from them and what management’s expectations are (Aquinas, 2009).

In addition to structural and systemic changes, organisational stress management also deals with the availability of training programmes that can assist employees to cope with “stress by emphasising the importance of happiness and a positive outlook” (Nahavandi et. al., 2015). Robbins and Judge (2013) suggest that stress-reducing or wellness programmes should be offered on a continuous basis to improve teachers’ physical and mental health. Training can also be extended to the whole staff so that they are able to deal with stress positively (Botha, 2013; Steyn & van Niekerk, 2013).

Educational Management and Leadership differentiated

Many researchers in the field of Educational Management and Leadership stress the importance of distinguishing between the concepts of management and leadership (Naidu, et al., 2011; Bush, 2007; Christie, 2010). In this paper the two concepts are however seen in an integrative way and used interchangeably. This is in line with Bush (2007) who observes that the concepts of management and leadership overlap each other and with Fink (2011) who reckons that the term management was given a linguistic makeover and became leadership. We thus applied these terms in a synonymous way, recognising that although the investigation falls in the study field of Educational Management and Leadership the term stress management is generally used in the literature and not stress leadership (Schulze & Steyn, 2007).

Considerable theorising has been conducted in the field of educational leadership in the last decade (Bush, 2007; Crawford, 2012; Christie, 2010; Leithwood & Sun, 2012). Authors seem to embrace diverse views and continually adapt their understanding of how to investigate and explain leadership behaviour in educational institutions (Pelser & Van Wyk, 2015). Leithwood and Sun (2012) say that there has been a change from traditional theories of leadership and management to those that are transformational in nature. Hartley (2010) sees this change as a major paradigm shift from the traditional view of leadership as centred on the role of individual leaders to alternative theories which place the focus on multiple participants.

Leadership theories

We examined the potential of a number of theories as basis for interpreting the empirical findings of this study and decided that managerial leadership and distributed leadership are the best-suited theories to deal with stress management in schools.

Managerial leadership

Managerial leadership is associated with a situation where leaders are seen as being commanding, controlling and authoritarian whilst showing an unwillingness to share power (Dambe & Moorad, 2008). When the above-mentioned aspects are applied to a school, a closed communication system results with a rigid leadership style where the lines of authority from principal to deputy head and then to heads of department are clearly defined with the principal being regarded as occupying the most central position in the school (Naidu, et al., 2011). “Authority and influence are allocated to formal positions, in proportion to the status of those positions in the organisational hierarchy” (Leithwood & Sun, 2012). When this theoretical point of view is applied to the management of stress in schools, prominence is given to the responsibility of the principal and the education department as being responsible for the management of stress. These stakeholders must decide how and by whom stress issues in schools will be handled. In most instances teacher stress would be managed according to existing protocol whereas the social and human relations aspects of stress management are neglected. Naidoo (2011) remarked in this regard that “South Africa’s underperforming schools require a greater emphasis on basic management that involves ensuring regular and timely attendance by learners and educators, maintaining order and discipline in classrooms, and providing adequate resources to enable learning to take place”. Botha (2013) reckons that “even in a decentralised school system principals are required to play strong leadership roles as it prioritises efficient and effective smooth running of schools”.

In terms of the managerial-leadership theory leaders like principals have the main responsibility to manage conflict and tension. Staff such as Departmental heads clearly are responsible for stress that emanates from their particular responsibilities. As middle-managers they also have to manage the consequences of stress that stems from personal relationships. These HoDs are also tasked to apply a whole range of stress-management techniques in schools.

Distributed leadership

The central premise of distributed leadership is that all management activities and processes are spread throughout the organisation. According to Williams (2011) distributed leadership implies that there has been a movement away from an over-reliance on the leader’s influence, to determining relevant variants of leader influence, to arguing for distributive leadership. Building on the ideas of distributed cognition, distributed leadership describes the ways that leadership activities are stretched across different people and positions within organisations and where the result is greater than the sum of the parts. Harris (2004:15) is of the view that the main advantage of this way of doing is that expertise is engaged “wherever it exists within the organisation rather than seeking this only through the formal role”.

The significance of distributed leadership for teachers’ stress is that teachers themselves are involved in the managing thereof (Botha, 2006). This means that the main advantage of distributed leadership in schools is the direct involvement of teachers, and not just their representation, in school matters. Teachers are thus not just there to provide advice but they have the right to make or heavily influence decisions (Somech, 2010). As Wadasengo (2011) explains, teachers are the direct custodians of the curriculum implementation process and that is therefore the correct place where their expertise can be applied. Teachers understand instruction-related issues and work processes better than management staff and their participation ensures that decisions for improved students’ learning will be made (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2015). Potential stressors that are related to teaching such as learner discipline, work allocation and working conditions and curriculum matter will be addressed in a satisfactory way.

Empirical research

Objectives of the study

In view of the above exposition the purpose of the study is to understand how teachers’ stress is managed in the Mahikeng area of the North-West Province. More specifically, the objectives were,

(a) to understand the phenomenon of teachers’ stress through a management lens, (b) to explore the value of different leadership theories for teachers’ stress management, and (c) to examine the manifestation of teachers’ stress in their professional working environment.

Research Design

A case study design was used for exploring and understanding qualitatively and interpretively (against the backdrop of a theoretical exposition on stress management in education and an application of the principles of two leadership theories to stress management) the perceptions of managers and staff about ways to ensure the improvement of teachers’ stress management in the Mafikeng area of the North-West Province in South Africa


The study was conducted in the Mafikeng area of the North-West Province of South Africa. This area is unique in many ways. In the previous political dispensation it formed part of the Bophuthatswana homeland. During that time a strong infrastructure for government was established in the towns consisting of Mafikeng and Mmabatho. After 1994, Mafikeng was entrenched as the capital city of the North-West province including a wide range of geographical areas from adjacent regions. The city itself is unique in the sense that apart from government, a large number of related industries and businesses were established, mainly by entrepreneurs who reside in Mafikeng.

The schools in and around Mafikeng that are the object of this investigation represent a variety that ranges from primary to secondary schools and from schools with a strong rural background to typical urban schools. The schools can currently be seen as serving a well-established and growing middle and upper class of mainly black people. This investigation deals with teachers who are working or have been employed in secondary schools in the area which constitutes a unique environment with its own sets of demands and challenges. A total of 955 educators are employed in the area. A snowballing sampling was used to select only educators that shared the information that they encounter high levels of stress. Educators were selected to represent all role players in education.

In purposeful sampling, researchers intentionally select individuals and sites to learn or understand the central phenomenon”. Purposeful sampling thus means that participants are selected because of some defining characteristics that make the holders of the data needed for the study. Six participants were accordingly purposively sampled to act as participants in this study. In this study the participants are referred to as managers and teachers. The three who are referred to as managers occupy or were employed as a Departmental Education Specialist, a Principal and a Departmental Head (HoD). Of the three teachers, two are still employed and the third one resigned in 2016. The three managers are anonymously identified as participants A, B and C and the teachers D, E and F.

Data Generation

Six individual teachers took part in semi-structured interviews. The interview schedules for both the managers and staff members consisted of the following five questions which were based on the individual participants’ involvement with stress management;

  1. Which organisational/administrative arrangements and procedures make a school a stressful workplace?
  2. Has the school got a responsibility to assist in managing teachers’ personal stress?
  3. How can stress management in the school, or the lack of it, affect teachers’ stress?
  4. What kind of leadership style is suitable for the management of teachers’ stress?
  5. To what degree is teachers’ stress officially identified and handled as such by management staff?

Data Analysis

The following six data analysis procedures as described by Creswell (2012) were applied. Firstly the data were read, followed by coding and the searching for themes, reviewing of themes, defining and naming of themes and creating of categories and then the final phase which involves the joining of an analytic narrative and data excerpts, in addition to the contextualisation of the analysis in correlation with existing literature.


To ensure the trustworthiness of the study thorough preparation was done beforehand on the different processes of data collection, analysis and resulting reporting to obtain the suitable, most valid and significant data for the study. During the data collection and analysis stage all participants were probed with the same questions on their involvement with stress management in ‘their’ schools. The data were recorded and transcripts of each interview were done in typed format. Both authors coded certain sections of the data independently and developed categories from the text which were then compared.

Since all the participants were either involved in sensitive negotiations with the Education Department or felt that they could be seriously disadvantaged if their names were attached to the findings, they were assured of their anonymity and each one was given an opportunity to read his/her completed transcript submitted to verify whether the information shared with the researcher was correctly reported. The researcher also took all necessary steps to treat all the information received from the participants confidentially and ensured that it was safely stored.

Ethical Considerations

Permission to perform this study was granted to the researcher from the Central District of the Department of Basic Education in Mafikeng. The study was also ethically cleared by the university under whose auspices it was done.

All ethical considerations such as permission to perform interviews, briefing of respondents regarding the purpose of the interview and the study and assurance that their inputs would remain confidential, were adhered to.


The following findings are based on the interview questions that were asked during the interviews.

Which organisational/administrative arrangements and procedures make a school a stressful workplace?

All participants indicated that they understood that there were certain systemic or organisational arrangements, policies and procedures present in all schools that caused stress. They realised that a professional organisation had to be governed by policies as well as rules and regulations and that the Department of Basic Education and the North West Provincial Education Department had an important role to play in this regard. Inconsistency in application was however pinpointed as the main reason why teachers experienced stress about these official procedures. Participant A mentioned that the Department did not act in terms of the so-called Post Provisioning Model (PPM). This lead to overcrowded classrooms, unfair job distribution and sluggishness of the Department (HR) to fill vacant positions. In addition it was stated that learners were promoted without deserving it; harassment of teachers by the Department of Basic Education; muddled communication from the Department’s side; inferior salaries; teachers pulled in all directions by role players in education; subject advisors not knowledgeable due to nepotism; corruption with textbooks and material; frequent change of assessment weighting; beginner teachers not willing to be taught anything and no housing allowance (Participant B). B also referred to the block-creeping phenomenon where beginner teachers’ salaries were the same as those of life-long teachers in education and the small difference between posts.

Generally, the responses showed that teachers appreciated the fact that the education profession had a comprehensive organisational structure. In so far as this study is concerned, their concerns had to do with the degree to which the implementation of a wide range of policies might increase the stress levels of teachers.

Has the school got a responsibility to assist in managing teachers’ personal stress?

The responses to this question indicate that teachers thought that it was not correct to make a strict distinction between “personal stress” and “school stresses”. Teachers believe that they suffer from “work stress” which includes aspects of personal stress and the stress that are the result of school challenges. Participant C even said they were all suffering from a number of symptoms and effects of stress. Teachers feel that like most other people they are affected by stress in their personal lives. In their case however their personal stress increases in their school lives. In the strict sense of the word the school should thus accept responsibility for managing all teachers’ stress. According to participant F this position makes sense since the school would otherwise have irritable teachers who can’t cope with stress, become irritable, assault learners, do not teach, become negligent, use anti-depressants, do not submit marks, are absent on a regular basis and sometimes even resign.

An interesting remark made by Participant C about accepting responsibility for stress management in a school is that everybody experienced stress and charity began at home. There is strength in unity and teachers act like they are another’s keepers. Another participant referred in this regard to a support system according to which teachers’ use of a “Buddy System” through which support groups assist each another, especially newly appointed teachers (Respondent B). Respondent D also commented that stress was handled in groups and that teachers did Pilates exercises together and then went for tea to a nearby coffee shop.

Generally, the responses showed that teachers’ stress should be seen and dealt with in the educational sector as one concept and must not be divided into personal stress and work stress. Schools, the department and management staff are therefore accordingly responsible to deal with all the stress that teachers experience.

How can stress management in the school, or the lack of it, affect teachers’ stress?

The responses revealed that all participants felt that an important part of teachers’ stress was caused by the actions or inactions of management staff. It was indicated that these staff members were in a position to control stressors that emanated from factors such as the introduction of new teaching and assessment methods, financial mismanagement, poor working conditions and pupil misbehaviour. Two participants added that there were also a number of day-to-day managerial issues that were created through inefficient management. Participant F and D mentioned the following, time-wasters, including holding and attending poorly managed meetings, allowing interruptions, not planning properly, not communicating effectively, and allowing paperwork to pile up so that time was wasted by looking for important documents.

The participants further agreed that those in managerial positions were partially to blame for teachers’ stress. Participant C was in fact very severe in her criticism of principals by remarking that some principals were ignorant people with manhandling attitudes and escalating and cascading corruption and paltry salaries. Participant F was more specific in criticising principals personally for teachers’ stress, explaining that some principals were absent, bullying and corrupt leaders who had no vision and were involved in uneven distribution of duties, unnecessary paperwork as well as in unfair promotions of learners.

It is clear that there was a strong view amongst participants that the role that principals played in stress management was at best minimal because they had not been trained to perform it and that some principals did not seem to be interested in applying themselves to perform this function.

What kind of leadership style is suitable for the management of teachers’ stress?

In analysing the responses it became clear that the participants saw stress management from different angles. The views of teachers and managers differed noticeably regarding a suitable leadership style for teachers’ stress management. Teachers emphasised the importance of the direct involvement of those in leadership positions by indicating that their first port of call when their stress problems started, was the principal. It seems as if they depended heavily on those in managerial positions to solve their anxieties. Participant F reported however stress concerns were referred to the HOD, the Deputy Principal and the Principal to resolve, but they could not assist. Participant F mentioned that her health was suffering due to the stress she had undergone and not a single member of the School Management Team (SMT) could be of any help. It thus seemed that they felt principals should be efficient leaders whereas the ones that they knew could be described as “weak leaders” (Participant C).

The participants who had experience of senior management responsibilities understood that managerial staff were directly responsible for a whole array of leadership and management tasks. They thought that the leadership style of principals was directly influenced by factors that could in broad terms be described as “departmental-inefficiencies”. If this view point is related to the management of teachers’ stress, attention should be paid to the words of Participant C who saw principals as bossy principals who adhered to the public or to the political rulers and were responsible for stress by introducing incompatible policies and using unfair practical measures.

All participants further agreed that teachers should not be seen as keen and willing to participate in a wide variety of school-wide management activities since there were already a whole range of stressors that influenced their professional working life and that they would therefore not like to be involved in too many additional managerial activities (Participant D). Learners’ behaviour and attitude, coupled with teaching, were seen as a big responsibility. An exception to this rule was teachers’ involvement in managerial activities that were linked to the instructional programmes. As direct custodians of the curriculum process teachers saw themselves as more knowledgeable than management staff on instructional matters.

In general terms, it seems as if the participants thought that a kind of combined leadership style was the most suitable for managing teachers’ stress. This style entails that principals should on the one hand be “father-like” figures who can address their stress issues in a top-down and very effective fashion. On the other hand they also expect principals to allow them to have the main say in curricular and teaching matters because they are “more knowledgeable than management staff on instructional matters”.

To what degree is teachers’ stress officially identified and handled as such by management staff?

The responses of the two groups varied slightly on this question. As described in the previous category the teachers felt that there was very little evidence of any effort from principals to manage stress in schools. Participant E mentioned in a somewhat conciliatory fashion that the principal was kindly disposed towards the staff, but there did not appear to be any internal “support” mechanisms to help her manage stress problems.

The managers accepted that there were no official stress management programmes in schools mainly because no training on how to handle stress related issues was available. They however felt that some effort was made in schools to manage teachers’ stress. One of the managers said that even though stress was not officially recognised as a situation or condition that had to be managed in a school, they had worked out their own methods or routines to cope with stressful situations (Participant B). Respondent A also said that she had never received any training in the management of stress but was overly sensitive to recognising stress symptoms and supported colleagues purely for common humanity reasons. Participant B added that teachers did not just approach you and told you they had stress. It was important for a senior manager to recognise stress symptoms in a school.

It thus seems that even though there are no official programmes available for stress management in schools, an effort is made to support teachers in a way that their stress levels can be reduced.

Concluding remarks

In broad terms the results of this study indicated an awareness amongst all participants that stress was present in their day-to-day operation in school and that it should be handled or managed, although it was not viewed as a life-threatening quiescent condition that necessitated urgent intervention. It seemed as if the effects of stress were underestimated and negated. From the responses it was clear that not only principals, but the whole School Management Team (SMT), were in some way or another involved with the managing of stress and tried their utmost to manage factors causing stress (Bennett, 1997). Being in a senior position necessitates that one has to notice the mien of stress, but it often went by unseen and was managed by all involved in their own manner. Due to the severity of unattended stress, a teacher eventually resigns or collapses as teachers frequently don’t reveal their stress condition (Motshekga, 2013). Some managers handle stress management on a laity level, and none of the participants were ever trained in this regard. To have had Psychology as a subject whilst being trained to become a teacher might be useful in the management of stress.

The results further indicate the danger of reducing the stress management simplistically to specific interventions that must be undertaken under certain circumstances to prevent or correct undesired results. Stress management is not measurable as a single factor and does not exist in a single definable situation. Instead, it should be viewed because of a transaction between an individual and peers or superiors (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2016). It is therefore not possible to do a situational or needs analysis with the idea to establish identifiable shortcomings for which specific stress-management remedies can be applied. The reality of stress management in educational institutions displays itself as a multi-dimensional phenomenon that cannot be practised in a piecemeal way by linking specific issues such as conflict and the presence of bureaucratic school structures with stress-management actions. These and other issues should rather be seen as part of a whole range of interwoven stressors that form part of a complex work environment that necessitates a combination of different stress-management techniques and approaches that should be applied in an integrative manner. The integrated nature of stress management is also evident from the fact that it manifests itself as being both pro-active and re-active. Pro-active stress management in a school is conducted with the idea to “increase the level of awareness of the negative consequences of stress and help educators to identify the symptoms of stress” (Steyn and van Niekerk, 2012: 224). Re-active stress has to do with corrective measures or the application of traditional management actions such as the provision of good leadership where the existence of stress levels is very high. Re-active stress management deals with the application of sound organisational and managerial principles in stressful relationships between teachers-and-teachers and between teachers-and-managers.

Results further show that there is a strong correlation between the tenets of the two leadership theories and the practice of stress management in schools. The way in which teachers expect their stress to be handled shows parallels with the authority allocated to principals in managerial leadership in terms of their official positions in the hierarchical organisation structure (Leithwood & Sun, 2012). Teachers not only accept that principals are responsible for all day-to-day managerial issues, which include the handling of stress, but expect them to manage their stress in both a preventative and corrective manner. Distributed leadership on the other hand fosters participation in decision-making (Bush 2007). Teachers themselves should be involved in taking decisions about their own stress (Botha, 2006). In the study there is however little evidence of teachers being willing to be involved in the management of their own stress. All participants agree that teachers should not be seen as keen and willing to participate in a wide variety of school-wide management activities since they feel that there are already a whole range of stressors that influenced their professional working life and that they would therefore not like to be involved in any additional stressful managerial activities. Although managers pointed out that there were a number of stress-reducing mechanisms available in schools and at the offices of the Education Department, teachers are hesitant to accept these opportunities, but prefer to be involved in informal stress management with other teachers. Another angle showed that teachers had an attraction for a particular aspect of distributed leadership. They see themselves as the direct custodians of the curriculum=implementation process. This view is clearly based on their perceived expertise in teaching and learning matters. Teachers should be regarded as specialists in the field of teaching and in managing and organising their classrooms (Wadesango, 2011). They even regard themselves as “more knowledgeable than management staff on instructional matters”. Ironically the teaching-learning situation is inherently the bearer of most teachers’ stress. The classroom is the engine room of school stressors such as disciplinary problems, assessment methods and pupil misbehaviour.


In view of the above the following suggestions are made:

Specific proactive steps can be taken by introducing programmes that are aimed at stress prevention.

  • Holistic stress relief is a program followed to reduce and alleviate chronic and acute stress at the physical, mental or spiritual levels. Easing in one area, impacts positively on another level. This approach impacts your mind, body and spirit in a powerful way and will lead to a continuum of health and illness as it increases your self-awareness and gives you a way in which you can develop inner peace and better physical health. Of the essence here is your mental, physical and emotional habits which either enhances or negates your health and moves you along the continuum. Once you are aware of the real problems causing physical and mental distress, the natural stress relievers that will help you will become obvious.
  • Mindfulness means the building of self-awareness and frustration tolerance in stressful conditions. Exercises on how to stay calm in a daring classroom situation, noticing, accepting and letting go of negative thoughts. Practise breathing and self-awareness techniques in the classroom, relaxing the tensions by implementing relaxation techniques in class. Use mindful walking, drawing and listening.
  • Cognisance of the role of thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour in stress response, the exploring of the internal world in stressful conditions — understanding “self-developed individual patterns” — the role of thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour in stress response, team teaching, regular feedback and workload division and by just being aware of stress indicators such as teacher absenteeism, missing deadlines and making careless mistakes.
  • The viewing of stress from the learners angle — building sustainable stress management capabilities for students in the classroom (helping to gain insights into “the teacher’s self-developed individual patterns”, calming the body, clearing the mind, maintaining emotional balance, building and nurturing kind connections). Supporting students when dealing with stressful (exams, public speaking) and traumatic experience (accidents, losses, violence). Self-reflection as a protective factor of self-care.
  • Maintaining newly-learned skills in stress management, review key learning points, personal action plan, action plan for classroom, feedback to the trainer using creativity technique. Celebrate teachers at regular meetings to create a win-win feeling in the school; regular staff meetings should be held to give teachers an opportunity to air their views; management to have an open-door policy for discussions with individual staff members; utilizing of social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook should be available for communication between teachers and management; provision should be made for teachers to get involved in informal stress-reducing methods such as exercises and clubs; teachers are free to enrol as individuals in the official departmental stress-support programmes.


The information acquired indicates that management of stress is of significance to prevent it from escalating and forcing teachers out of the system. There is an urgent need to support managers and individual teachers with stress-management skills. The Provincial Department of Education and School Management Teams have to be made aware of the role it should play in managing teachers’ stress.

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Exploring circular systems-based education in South Africa: A collaborative approach to digital learning

Author: Dr Eben Haeser Swanepoel
Orcid Id: 0000-0003-3205-5244
Postdoctoral Researcher, North-West University, Economic and Management Sciences, GIFT.
PhD: Psychology of Education (UFS), M.Ed Psychology of Education (UFS), Hons Psychology (UNISA), B.Ed FET (UFS)

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 6: 1


South African education systems are at an exciting juncture. They are shaping the way into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and globalized access to learning. Online learning has gained traction internationally and been shown to be effective in curbing overcrowded classrooms at both schools and institutions of higher learning. Online solutions promote open-access learning at cost-effective rates also. South Africa is hindered, however, through unequal access to resources and inequality when it comes to the implementation of online learning as a uniform platform across locations. This article explores a circular model of sensitizing educators, by means of teacher induction, to the use of digital content through collaborative practice, whilst building a systemic autonomous platform of content which is contextual, reliable, and formally assessed before it is used in classrooms. Drawing on cybernetic theory, the article is framed by how systems open and close boundaries to information and how systemic structure is either maintained or lost during the process of adapting to incoming feedback from other systems. With the pressure to adapt to international ideals and globalization, it becomes increasingly important to explore how South African education systems steer information from teacher induction to the ultimate application at grassroots classroom level. Digitized learning, as proposed through this article, holds value when incorporated through collaborative practice where information boundaries from external systems are opened and closed for the purpose of maintaining the ideals of internationally bench-marked knowledge, while at the same time upholding a unified democratic front to the South African context.

Keywords: Cybernetics; Technology Education; Educational Systems; Teacher Induction; Circularity

1. Introduction   

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has brought on disruptive technological advances which can potentially replace outdated and traditional ways of doing. Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT), all characteristic of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s innovations for transformative practice, introduce technological innovation which can potentially change the way we teach and prepare learners and students for the world of work (Xing & Marwala, 2017; Kayembe & Nel, 2019). The rapid trajectory of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s globalization movement compels us to reflect on existing ways of doing and align the South African education system with international benchmarks and global trajectories in the area of vocational access. At the same time, there is a growing need to explore how, within the globalization movement, the South African educational system can retain a democratically unified system whilst simultaneously accounting for cultural diversity and the unequal access to information systems at sub-systemic levels due to past inequalities that hinder access and resource distribution (Meier & Hartell, 2009).

The relevance of 4IR to South Africa, as a Sub-Saharan country, has however been scrutinized. The country’s infrastructure deficits and unequal skill distribution are key challenges to aligning skillsets with the benchmarks of advanced economies (Ayentimi & Burgess, 2019), and public discourse centres on the need for better access and globally bench-marked educational reform. Historically, the Fees Must Fall movement is an example of societal feedback highlighting the dialogue of high-quality access to higher education platforms at lower costs (Pillay & Swanepoel, 2018). More recently, the global Covid-19 pandemic and the national lock-down have highlighted the importance of continuous instruction across all education platforms. Digitized learning platforms have become a go-to for instruction (Odendaal, 2020).

Especially post-apartheid, educational reform in South Africa has seen a paradigmatic emphasis on ways of doing, focussing especially on policy and curriculum reform to align with systemic injustices caused by past unequal access to education and resource distribution (Gumede & Biyase, 2016; Subreenduth, 2009). Social segregation and class privilege, however, still pose challenges when it comes to equal access to quality education. The desired change for socially just education reform has been slow to manifest at a practical level. An inter-generational cycle of unequal privilege and poverty now sees learners from sociohistorically hindered schools unable to accumulate the skills, especially in mathematics, to assimilate functional alignment with high-quality education access and lifelong learning opportunities (Spaull, 2015). There has been stringent progress in technologically enhanced learning methods in South African schools, and teacher training programs now need to be examined as a key component in aligning South Africa with the global trends that form part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Padayachee, 2017). Older teachers often evade technological disruption in the classroom, while younger teachers show greater confidence in the use of modern digitized learning methods (Msila, 2015). This reflects segregated learning experiences across spaces and places of learning, and articulates the cycle of unequal learning that permeates traditional classroom practices. It can be argued that how a learner in a specific school will be taught is then left to the luck of the draw and would depend on the particular level of classroom autonomy they are subjected to for a given learning experience.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by innovative interdisciplinary teaching methods, with many South African teachers feeling uncomfortable teaching outside of their own discipline-knowledge systems. They may be slow when it comes to adopting enhanced methodological approaches towards cross-disciplinary collaboration (Chaka, 2019). It becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to use information in a funnelled manner, especially with the rapid digitization of information at a global scale and the need to facilitate both the subject knowledge as well as the technological skill-sets associated with finding and evaluating information in the classroom (Kultawanicha, Koraneekija & Na-Songkhlaa, 2015). The dissemination of information becomes an increasingly important skill-set. The wealth of information during the digitized age calls for greater scrutiny not only in terms of relevance, but also the applicability thereof, outside the classroom and within learners’ communities. A quality educational system should therefore be founded on skilled educators who implement and drive technological systems to optimize learning (Moodley, 2019) within relevant and applicable boundaries, for the purpose of mediating knowledge and information during the learning experience in a meaningful and contextual way.

Online learning, the Internet of Things, and the use of Artificial Intelligence for personalised learning are redefining the role of educational systems (Ally, 2019; Picciano, 2019; Pillay, Maharaj & van Eeden, 2018). Given how the use of smartphones, tablets and computers are becoming increasingly common among learners and students and the manner in which these technologies disrupt traditional pedagogical methods in classrooms on an ongoing basis (Laurillard & Kennedy, 2017; Zhamanov & Sakhiyeva, 2015), exploring a system of incorporating technology in a meaningful and collaborative way during classroom practice becomes increasingly viable. The shift towards digitized learning environments, in particular, but also the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s globalization trajectory would necessitate such an investigation. The systemic integrity of South African education, the inclusive nature of which extends across the space and place of all communities and stakeholders (be it national or international) should at the same time be retained. While there are a growing number of virtual and blended schools globally, further research is needed to determine the long-term viability thereof in terms of successful student retention and performance (Miron, Shank & Davidson, 2018). A lack of infrastructure, the skill-sets of teachers and overall expertise in optimally utilizing technology in the teaching-learning environment pose further limitations to modernizing digitized classroom practices in South Africa (Jantjies & Joy, 2016).

Specifically grounded on collaborative practice among various stakeholders toward global vocational access and quality education, this article aims to explore a circular model of teaching-learning which can potentially mediate geographical and spatial limitations to learning and sustain a continued and reliable method of delivery which brings transparent, reliable and valid information to learners and students. The circular method of delivery furthermore addresses the need to uphold a unified international standard of knowledge and information for the digitized age, while simultaneously retaining South African benchmarks and ideals as a means to retain systemic structure within the global front of information sharing and innovation as we move toward the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

2. First-order cybernetics: A systemic approach to information and education

Cybernetics derives from the Greek Kybernetes, which also translates to steersman (Heylighen & Joslyn, 2001). Aimed at investigating similarities amongst autonomous systems, cybernetics provides a lens for exploring how systems are structured and steered (at first-order level), and why they behave as they do (through a Second Order perspective). While the term cybernetics is often associated with the functioning of machine systems and robotics, it can also be used to observe and explore social systems and discourse (Umpleby, Medvedeva, Lepskiy, 2019). The theoretical lens through which this article is articulated is based on first-order cybernetics. Aligned with systems theories, cybernetics allows for the investigation and exploration of how systems are governed and maintained through patterns and rules that form boundaries to information. Especially useful in framing goal-related functioning of systems, the use of first-order cybernetics allows the researcher to investigate how a system functions through investigating the feedback processes of information which are allowed or rejected at specific intervals within the system to either initiate change or retain structure (Becvar & Becvar, 2012). As systems are governed by rules and patterns which form boundaries for attaining systemic structure, opening boundaries to allow information in, or in turn closing boundaries to reject information, helps provide a better understanding of how systems function in achieving a desired state or goal.

Accordingly, the use of first-order cybernetics provides a valuable framework for investigating the implementation of e-learning in classrooms across educational platforms. Simultaneously, it becomes possible to investigate how different systems within the wider South African system are shaped or restricted through open and closed boundaries, while at the same time investigating a model that allows for cohesive information flow to enter the South African system and school subsystems as self-sustaining entities without losing overall systemic integrity and entering a state of dysfunction (entropy).

3. Unifying the space and place of learning

The innovative use of digital learning aligns with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 and aims toward a 21st century paradigm of Education for All. This will deem the use of digitized learning as central to infrastructure limitations and extending learning to learners who reside in remote areas (Ally, 2019). Accordingly, the World Economic Forum’s Internet for All initiative looks at the deployment of training aimed at bridging the online access gap. South Africa is one of the countries that is aligned with the global Fourth Industrial Revolution initiative. By identifying challenging spaces of connectivity, especially in rural areas, the initiative is centred on “extending ICT infrastructure to underserved areas, lowering the costs of being online and cheaper gadgets, digitising local content and providing ICT and digital skills” (Matshediso, 2017). The unification of place and space, specifically to optimize learning, is twofold and encompasses the physical dimension as well as the unseen dimension (time and context). Encountering boundaries to learning in traditional classroom practice is commonplace, and online learning systems provide the opportunity to connect to other systems of learning and draw from external knowledge bases. Chilton (2019) expresses the value of connecting to prerecorded case study material or learners who are not able to access the main place of learning.

While the before-mentioned holds potential for bringing connectivity to areas otherwise hindered from achieving optimal access to online resources, there is a need to look at available tools for bridging the divide and achieving successful implementation. Jantjies and Joy (2016) draw on the lack of access to proper resources such as computers in schools, while maintaining that mobile phones have been effective in enhancing learning and teaching globally, especially in developing countries. The researchers go on to point out that multiple languages hinder the implementation of technological methods for blended learning in South Africa. While Western discourse is seen as a colonising tool deflecting from African knowledge systems (Pillay & Swanepoel, 2018), it becomes increasingly important to steer South African education in innovative ways and incorporating global innovations in a meaningful way whilst retaining the systemic integrity of the South African education system as whole. While also accounting for the resource constraints that underlie many spaces of learning, the multilingual citizenship characteristic of the South African context can, instead of closing the door to global adaption, become a strong motivator for conceptualizing an indigenously relevant system.

4. Establishing boundaries to open information: Toward ethical patterns of learning

The growing nature of the digitized learning and online access platforms for information is transcending closed boundaries to learning, and the digitized age is seeing a rapid increase in information availability (Ally, 2019). Gous (2019) postulates that the aim of education is to teach knowledge and information that is on par with the latest developments. Gous (2019) evaluates the applicability of information and knowledge through contextualized teaching. What is relevant and current will depend on the needs of the people that the information is intended to serve. Lambert and Gong (2010) emphasise that knowledge is power. Should information systems not be effectively employed, we risk a further divide and marginalization which would perpetuate past cycles. One example of this would be how literacy education has, through past policy and practice, enhanced white supremacy. Education did this through information control amongst groups which caused inequality in participation and vocational access, as well as further education and training (Reygan & Steyn, 2017).

South African education is based on rules and patterns of constitutional ideals enshrined in the South African Constitution (1996) that translate into idealized practice through the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (Department of Basic Education, 2011). These rules encapsulate the boundaries of equitable information and provide for restorative action concerning historic inequalities, the promotion of messages and knowledge based on inclusivity, and further promoting transformation towards the overall system of South African citizenship. Closed micro exploration has, however, revealed that closed system instruction has retained dysfunction and teachings have not been aligned with the overall systemic boundaries of social justice and equal participation (Davids, 2104; Rooth, 2005). While closed systemic loops have widened the gap between theoretic ideals and practice, opening educational boundaries to information can potentially lead to entropy.

Platonova and Gous (2019) draw on open education as a meaningful tool for producing free-thinking and multiculturally articulate learners. However, the researchers refer to open systems such as online education as a tool for perpetuating ideology and advance knowledge and information which is construed by power. Drawing on Gee (2011), the researchers feel that learning is central to changing patterns of behaviour and the creation of socially situated identities. Through symbolic discourse and cultural control, uncritical mass learning can decontextualize learning and skew it to the ideas and values of systems which are not relevant or on par with the learner’s specific context, which is where behaviour manifests. This is especially important to note when it comes to the creation of democratically accessible information systems during the digitized age where boundaries to information have been opened to global citizenship. Anefuku (2017) notes that opening boundaries to information for globalized knowledge is futile without critically examining the systems which underlie the knowledge base itself.

South African education systems are perpetually criticized for being dysfunctional at the practical level of conveying core curriculum content. Educators lack subject knowledge and in some cases teach subjects that fall out of their scope of training (Moloi, 2019). According to Lee and Brett (2015), a firm understanding of subject knowledge and comprehension of aligned pedagogies is fundamental to successfully utilizing technology during classroom instruction. A deficit in subject expertise is in turn a closed boundary for adapting to modern digitized learning methods which is relevant and contextual to learner needs. Research has also revealed closed boundaries of information sharing during sensitive topics, especially topics that are related to Social-Justice education. During certain classroom teachings, teachers perpetuate incongruent messages to learners, or leave out core content completely due to personal beliefs (Reygan & Francis, 2015). In such instances, opening boundaries to digital material holds value, and the teacher’s role as facilitator then becomes key in facilitating activities amongst learners. The use of technology for such learning experiences is however closely monitored and cannot be implemented on a large scale (such as via MOOC) due to the cultural plurality of learners needing to be understood within boundaries that are specific to the South African context. The uncritical use of material in digital format on the part of the teacher can either sustain the lesson within closed boundaries of digital use or lead to further entropy when employed without careful consideration.

Clarà and Barberà (2013) warn against the problematic pedagogies which underlie many forms of MOOCs, deriving from behaviouristic foundations to learning that situate knowledge as observable and objectively attainable. Further uncritical pedagogies can potentially lead learning toward representations of the object of learning, which obscures knowledge not as constructed patterns through various perspectives, but a thing that is not dynamic and adaptable. The use of MOOCs, without critically reflecting on which knowledge boundaries are opened, leads to further entropy within the learning process. Wise, Cui, Jin and Vytasek (2017) comment on interactional patterns during online discussions used in digital learning communities. With the wide array of participants engaging in the online discussion, it becomes difficult and chaotic to successfully disseminate relevant information that is aligned with the purpose of the learning activity. Porter et al (2016) further draw on harassment and bullying as cornerstone malpractices that hinder the adoption of online learning platforms. The further spread and “trolling” of pornographic material is also prevalent on online platforms. Online learning, in turn, needs to be aligned with instructors who comprehend not only the context of their digital platforms and users, but also grasp ethical boundaries in creating a functional system that is shielded from learning hindrances through the use of intervention, guidance and active participation.

 5. Traditional hierarchical versus modern digitized educational instruction

Traditional education systems are characterized by pedagogies that emphasise knowledge as external, thus situating the role of a teacher as the knower who leads learners to a set reality of “knowing”. Subsequent paradigm shifts have seen the role of the teacher change to that of a facilitator whose primary role is to create a learning environment in which learners co-construct knowledge. Recently, the shift toward modern digitized pedagogies is seen through the implementation of web 2.0 and the technological move toward learning platforms where learners connect to online instructors and potentially a wide array of knowledge sources (Clarà and Barberà, 2013). It has been noted that while the uncritical pedagogical approaches utilized through MOOCs can lean toward traditional behaviourist methods of instruction, the potential opportunities created for collaborative modern pedagogies is of value when used within a multi-perspective and collaborative environment. Fourth Industrial Revolution learning environments are conducive to collaborative learning. The teacher brings innovative technological methods to the classroom to facilitate collaboration, innovation, and creativity (Adefila & Pillay, 2019; Maksimović & Dimić, 2016). The modern role of the educator is subsequently multi-dimensional and transcends subject knowledge, redefining the educator as a change agent skilfully navigating social tenancies. The role is characterised by reflective practise and ongoing learning and research to maintain relevance in the face of societal changes in dynamic and innovative ways (Maksimović & Dimić, 2016).

Online education in various forms, including asynchronous and synchronous learning methods, have become popular platforms for instruction delivery, with designed lessons incorporating blended learning methods and artificial intelligence software for delivering personalized learning experiences (Ally, 2019; Picciano, 2019). Ally (2019) and Damoensa (2003) refer to the importance of teaching for the future, and align the modern role of the educator with the need to dynamically prepare learners for vocational access to jobs that are not yet in existence. The need for face-to-face learning as traditional learning methods have been re-aligned with virtual teachings where learners take control of their own learning experiences and select learning content (Akpan, Etim & Ogechi, 2016). Flipped classrooms have also broken away from traditional linear models of instruction, leading the learner to actively co-construct knowledge (Hwang, Lai & Wang, 2015). Gross, Pietri, Anderson, Moyano-Camihort and Graham (2015) draw on blended learning as it is beneficial for pre-class preparation and providing more opportunities for in-class activities as well as active learning experiences. Specifically grounded through research based on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the researchers point to beneficial outcomes when learning is balanced between on-line and in-class contact-based activities. Flipped and virtual classrooms have shown proven value through the recording of classes and lectures for later use. The proven effectiveness of this method has led to classes being pre-recorded to instil basic knowledge before formal instruction, which in turn has led to more time for in-class discussion and contextualization (Hwang, Lai & Wang, 2015).

The ‘leading’ of learners and students is important, as the flipped classroom can revert to autonomous systems of control should boundaries to learning be too rigid and narrow. Further entropy is also possible should boundaries be too open and allow for too much learner autonomy. The teacher is at the core of successful technological integration in the classroom. Successful integration of constructivist learning and the use of technology is driven by the beliefs of the educator who ultimately enters the classroom (Chen, 2008), and accordingly teacher induction and developmental programs should focus not only on skillset improvement, but also teachers’ beliefs about digital learning. Damoense (2003) noted that online learning enhances collaborative engagement. Traditional teacher instruction gives way to facilitating meaningful engagement with online activities. The wealth of online activities and resources make the act of leading learners and teacher beliefs cornerstone in ensuring that meaningful boundaries to information are opened. To attain systemic integrity within modern 21st century teaching-learning spaces, the use of e-learning, flipped and virtual classrooms need to be used effectively in the context within which learners reside (both at a micro and macro level). This is especially important in relation to the amount of learning that will stem from online methods and which learning will flow from face-to-face modes of delivery. As such, the awareness of systemic boundaries becomes a cornerstone during online pedagogies. Educators will need to open and close boundaries to online instruction in a manner that enhances the overall flow of the teaching-learning process.

 6. A circular approach to collaborative practice

An effective method of opening boundaries to enhance teacher adaptability toward digitized learning is found in the form of Communities of Practice (CoP). CoPs allow for collaborative practice, and when grounded through trusted patterns of interaction, enhance cross-platform learning that is stimulated through various stakeholders (Lee & Brett, 2015). According to Lee and Brett (2015), the use of online-learning design allows for teachers to cross-collaborate within a CoP, which enhances peer-teacher communication, stimulates self-reflection, and allows for stronger implementation of material within classroom practice. Lambert and Gong (2010) advocate for the use of technological systems during pre-service teacher instruction. They see it as vital for translating skill-sets during teaching when educators enter classroom practice. However, while many universities and institutions of learning provide computers for use during training, programs often miss the opportunities to effectively integrate digital systems in meaningful ways that advance post-training incorporation and use.

The remainder of the discussion will focus on a circular model of open-closed boundaries to digital content which emphasises collaborative practice and contextual awareness stemming from initial teacher induction towards the grassroots classroom use of media and material. Specifically grounded on a process of circularity pertaining to the knowledge-systems teachers draw on, the proposed model further envisages a South African knowledge base and context in a manner where information is mediated and steered toward the ideals of the South African system and unified and constructed through a wide array of perspectives, languages and contextual backgrounds. Intrinsic to the model is that the product of the information retains core knowledge integrity and is evaluated and steered through didactic approaches during teacher induction, as part of the process, instead of it being a process to engage with only once teachers actually start to teach. Skill-sets can, accordingly, be translated toward post-induction employment where teachers construct subsystems of evaluated and monitored content, thereby ensuring a uniform content base as teachers become comfortable with the use of digitizing learning and peer-support towards the goal of reliable and equitable information sharing.

Figure 1: Cyclical model of initiating cross-platform collaboration toward e-learning in South Africa (Author, 2020)

Figure 1 illustrates a circular approach to introducing a reliable and valid flow of e-learning content into classrooms while providing relief for teacher input during certain stages or cycles of curriculum coverage. The risk of an open system to online learning content has been discussed, as content drawn on from international sources or external open boundaries does not guarantee that contextual or relevant information is conveyed to learners. The aim is further to emphasise that digitized content should not dominate lessons but be used effectively and innovatively to enhance the learning that occurs during formal teaching hours. A circular method of introduction to core content, in collaboration with higher education instructors, and emanating through the teacher induction process, holds value both for ensuring valid and reliable use of digital content, as well as for allowing sub-system classroom level autonomy during the facilitation and contextualisation of information.

A process of circularity allows information to flow through the system in a controlled and goal-oriented manner, while providing for a basis of stored content which is accumulated and available to teachers post-induction for use and knowledge refinement. It is noteworthy that this article specifically draws on a model where information is continuously updatable. Opening too many boundaries to online learning is detrimental and will lead to entropy and systemic dysfunction. Thus, the proposed model is founded on shaping an autonomous community of content which is evaluated and on par with current trends in education, and stored in offline format for post-induction use. The material is shaped around core content. Through the process of teacher induction, it can utilize various forms of online instruction and assessment methods, which can be translated to the needs of the classroom system. With a wide array of material available across various subject didactics, it also leads to fewer challenges when looking to find content that is of value across different contexts of space and place.

Teachers entering their own space and place of teaching post-induction have an array of material and curriculum coverage available to them right at the onset. They can integrate the resources available during induction in a controlled environment alongside various stakeholders and peers from a plurality of backgrounds and skill-sets. The process stimulates access to resources and material which is contextually relevant and adaptable to a specific context. Boundaries to the material are opened and closed to learners either offline or online, and the overall integrity of the system’s use is adjusted to contextual constraints and resources, as material can be provided through various offline means. Importantly, a circular system, as proposed, provides teachers with opportunities to shape positive values and collaborative values about using technologically-based learning in classrooms without opening e-learning boundaries in a manner that is disadvantageous to other systems of learning situated in other contexts. Boundaries are therefore systematically removed in a way that does not cause a larger divide between schools systems and teachers who cannot employ sophisticated digital material in the classrooms.

A sensitization process is thus articulated where, through opening and closing systemic boundaries to material, the teacher can better navigate their own subject knowledge and continuous learning, while allowing for a stronger unified method of conveying base knowledge and giving way to the contextual application of skill-sets in the classroom. While there are various sources available for teachers to draw on content already, these sources are often expensive and not created with larger populations or context in mind. They are also not always reliable in terms of the encapsulated core ideals of national and international benchmarks. Ideally, to maintain systemic integrity, the overall aims of a model for implementing digital learning in classrooms should enhance teacher practice to align with reliability, and up-to-date ethical information. Ultimately, constructing a circular approach for reliable information and content sharing holds value for periods of instruction disruption while also allowing for teachers to shape values and autonomy to draw strategically on local and international content for enhancing practice, bypassing emotional bias during certain lessons, or reshaping and refining knowledge that is not on par to, or unaligned with, current trends and benchmarks.

7. Recommendations and research

There are various challenges to the implementation of a circular model for digitizing content for a unified information base. Firstly, cloud space is expensive, and the management of the proposed system can be costly and time-consuming. While the proposed system is autonomous and updates as teacher-induction takes place, further research is required to explore smaller data management systems that are both cost effective and reliable, especially in spaces where schools already employ online learning in effective and creative ways. Artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are feared as potentially replacing teachers. However, with careful consideration and implementation, the uses thereof can reduce administrative times and reduce the likelihood and severity of teacher burnout. The use thereof for system management and information sharing in strengthening classroom practice will be useful for stimulating public debate around the digitized paradigm shift in South Africa towards the ideals of globalization and technological advancement that characterise the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

8. Conclusion

The unequal distribution of resources and the post-apartheid ripples that hinder many schools’ systems from benefiting from real-time synchronous instruction that is relevant to the South African context, are impeding the adoption of technology in South African classrooms. While international systems have deep knowledge and information sharing pools to draw from, the boundaries of relevance and context are primary challenges in shaping a sustainable base from a South African perspective. This article subsequently explored a possible method of sensitizing teachers to online learning through a collaborative model based on circularity. The proposed model reflects the advantage of continuous content, which involves opening a system to allow for new content to flow in a directed manner, while closing boundaries to content that is not on par or reliably assessed before being widely used. The proposed model allows teachers to access an array of voices and methods pertaining to a specific lesson, so that they can reliably convey core content in a more effective and controlled manner. By providing more time for the teacher to facilitate context and application in the classroom, the value of a circular model lies therein that it further stimulates ongoing access to new methods and content coverage for self-reflection and peer engagement.

Limitations of resources and time constraints are curbed due to the initial construction of a community platform during induction. South Africa has the exciting opportunity to shape the adoption of digital learning in a manner that emphasises the active role of the teacher as both facilitator and lifelong learner, while also bridging contextual boundaries in new and innovative ways that promote the sustainability of the South African systemic context. At the forefront of the digitization process is the call for further research into refining an autonomous system which would reduce colonial powers’ monopoly on information and further investigating closed boundaries to unreliable material and content to the detriment of the learner and their subsequent context in terms of place and space. The move toward digitized learning can strengthen teacher practice and enhance collaboration. If not properly initiated and implemented, however, we may create a further divide amongst systems of learning, and not just among subsystems in South Africa. The overall integrity of the South African context of learning may be compromised, when compared with international benchmarks.

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