DIGITAL EDUCATION: BEYOND THE HYPE

Access to ICTs in South African schools is growing with much fanfare but with little impact

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Digital technologies have slowly been making their way over the last two decades into South African classrooms. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), 28% of public schools around the country use computers and other devices to enhance teaching and learning, up from 12.3% in 1999.

Most recently, the Gauteng Provincial Education Department extended its ICTs programme to include the grade 11 cohort in no-fee-paying schools. Like their Grade 12 peers, who were brought onto the programme a year ago, learners at these schools now have access to digital technologies such as interactive whiteboards, tablets and internet access—bringing them closer to parity with better-off schools. This follows on from a similar initiative by the Western Cape Provincial Education Department.

These initiatives are potentially good news for both teachers and learners, says Micheal Goodman, Group Content Manager and education publisher and e-learning specialist Via Afrika.“We at Via Afrika believe that technology has the potential to revolutionise teaching and learning,” says Goodman. “However, we know that the mere presence of technology in the classroom is not enough for the revolution to take place. Even the most successful of initiatives to expand access will have limited impact if teachers do not integrate the technology into their teaching practices.” Goodman adds that it is unclear, if not unlikely, that the growing access to technology in schools has improved education outcomes to the extent it should have. More comprehensive research is needed to determine how effective teachers have been at integrating technology into their teaching practices. But, Goodman says, the little research there is suggests teachers are continuing to use old teaching methods despite the introduction of technology, severely inhibiting the technology’s possible impact.

A research paper prepared for Carnegie III, a national conference on overcoming poverty and inequality held at the University of Cape Town in 2012, said most of the few teachers in South African schools who were using ICTs to teach were at the entry and adoption phases. It said that the teachers’ use of ICTs was not at a level where they had the confidence to use the new tools to enhance learning let alone innovate, as the DBE’s teacher development framework envisaged.Co-authored by University of Witwatersrand education researchers Nokulunga Ndlovu and Donovan Lawrence, the paper cited negative attitudes by teachers towards technology and their lack of expertise as the main impediments to teachers using technology to innovate. The researchers also said the teacher training programmes in place equipped teachers with only the most basic skills, which are insufficient for them to take the technology into the classroom and use it effectively. 

“The fact that teachers struggle to innovatively use the skills they acquire from the trainings to tailor-make lessons that will extend or improve learning is evidence that these interventions might not be addressing the classroom needs of teachers,” Ndlovu and Lawrence wrote. In response to this gap in teacher training, Via Afrika last year launched the Via Afrika Digital Education Academy, in partnership with the DBE. The launch followed on from the publication of a report by Via Afrika that showed that only 132 884 of the country’s 413 067 teachers had been trained in basic computer skills and ICT equipment by 2011. Goodman says teachers who enrol at the Via Afrika Digital Education Academy embark on their own digital education journey, developing the skills and knowledge that will allow them to make the most of what digital education brings to the classroom.“Our approach to teacher training begins with acquainting teachers with their tablet device. They learn, in the introductory course, the basics of how to use the device to communicate and access files and apps such as calendars and e-readers,” says Goodman. “From there they move on to learning about teaching through technology. They learn about the classroom uses of social media, and Google and its suite of apps. The final course is on the technical aspects of digital learning in schools.”

The content on offer at the Digital Education Academy is divided into 36 two-hour sessions over four courses, delivered through face-to-face training, live webinars and recorded webinars. Each session in the course is endorsed by South African Council of Educators and allocated five professional development points, which are awarded on successful completion of the session and its assessment.  Goodman says they developed the courses based on the company’s experience of rolling out Via Afrika Digital Education Centres (VADECs) to rural schools. VADECs are repurposed shipping containers filled with Via Afrika’s suite of e-textbooks and education apps, tablets and a computer, and are equipped with Wi-Fi internet access, all paid for by Via Afrika. The VADECs have had a profound effect on the performance of teachers and learners in schools where they were introduced, according to Goodman. He says it wasn’t as much the VADECs themselves that brought about the positive change as it was the teacher-centred approach the company took in introducing them. This is the same approach the company has taken at the Via Afrika Digital Education Academy.“By placing the teacher at the centre of digital education, we have avoided many of the pitfalls that come with introducing digital technology into the classroom,” Goodman says.

One such pitfall is the negative attitude teachers and learners develop towards technology when they do not have the knowledge or skills to use it in teaching and learning. Goodman says technology detracts from, rather than enhances education when it becomes a source of frustration in the teaching and learning process. He says teachers who complete the courses come to appreciate the transformative effect technology can have in their own personal lives. That way they come to understand that digital technology in the classroom is not merely an improved version of the old way of teaching. This, more than anything, he says, is what policy makers, corporates and non-governmental organisations interested in digital education would do well to consider deeply. 

“Digital education is an evolution in teaching and learning, not merely a new way to continue old practices,” he says. The poor outcomes of the country’s education system also hold back the development of a robust ICT industry, a requirement for digital education to flourish, according to Glenn Gillis, managing director of gaming, animation and augmented reality firm Sea Monster.“To have the desired impact, digital education needs a tech sector with consumers, producers, innovators and policy makers that have basic and advanced ICT knowledge and skills. These people will drive demand for ICT skills, which will improve the quality of digital education products on offer. The education system is not yet producing these kinds of citizens to the extent it should,” says Gillis. “It’s a negative feedback loop. But the education system is precisely the place where we can break the cycle and supply our economy with the citizens it needs to make a quantum leap into the 21st century. 

Gillis says Government and businesses, as providers of services to customers and training institutions for their employees, have a role to play directly and indirectly in growing demand for the skills needed to take digital education in South Africa to the next level. “Collectively, Government and businesses interact with millions of customers and employees every day. Should they adopt or fast-track their strategies to drive more of these interactions through digital channels, they would not only reap the other benefits of digital, such as the ability to scale at little or no cost, they would also be contributing to the general state of the country’s e-readiness.”Currently, South Africa ranks 65 out of 145 economies on overall ICT usage, a measure of digital readiness, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Networked Readiness Report. Coming in at 105th, government’s ICT usage lagged behind in both business (35th) and individual (68th) usage. The report suggested that the country’s government isn’t giving enough priority to ICTs, nor are enough business and government services available to customers through digital channels. Gillis says the task ahead to turn the situation around is enormous, making the fragmented approach the country has followed thus far a risky gamble in an increasingly competitive global economy. “Everyone seems to be working in their own silos, with too little by way of collaboration. We need big, bold initiatives that reach across sectors and are based on evidence of what works. The country has a proud history of collectively pulling off what outsiders thought impossible. There is no reason we cannot do the same to use digital technologies to create a modern, high-tech education system.”

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