• The learning domain

    As digital education solutions roll out across Africa’s classrooms, pupils, teachers and governments are discovering the potential that technology can bring.

    The learning domain

    The first word that most young children learn to write is their own name. It’s harder to tell exactly which letter they learn first but – in Africa, at least – it might soon be the letter ‘E’.

    In January 2015, the Gauteng Department of Education launched six e-learning pilot schools in Johannesburg, South Africa. The schools – Tshepisa Primary School, Tlamatlama Primary School and Boitumelong Senior Secondary School (all in Tembisa), Ponelopele Oracle Secondary School in Midrand, Thandi Eleanor Sibeko Secondary School near Nigel and Phomolong Secondary School in Edenvale. Each received content and systems that are aligned with the curriculum assessment policy statement (CAPS), for learners and teachers.

    Riaan Jonck, CEO of educational products and services firm Pearson South Africa, says: ‘The classroom of the future, using technology, will entail the coming together of the educator as a key enabler; creativity; outcomes; critical thinking; big data; and personalisation.’ His firm donated e-content for Grades 10 to 12 to all partaking schools.

    Jonck says that through this technology, teachers in classrooms – where books can be scarce – now have access to online and digital resources to keep their lessons up to date.

    ‘This model gives educators and students feedback in real time, and provides measurable outcomes based on the data.

    ‘Testing and technology-based solutions help teachers and students identify where they can improve so they can focus their efforts and achieve more, based on real data. The opportunities are endless,’ he says.

    Unfortunately, most South African schools aren’t making the grade in terms of results.

    In 2004, the country’s Department of Education – which at the time was responsible for both basic and higher education – released a white paper on implementing e-learning nationwide within 10 years.

    However, as the class of 2014 graduated, that target had not yet been met. Statistics released in Parliament by the Department of Basic Education showed that only 6 107 out of 25 870 schools were ICT-enabled.

    Adequate teaching training is absolutely essential ‘but e-learning is also very important, especially in the internet, technology-driven world we live in’

    The Via Afrika Snapshot of eLearning in South African Schools report, which tracks digital education in the country, found that only 132 884 out of 413 067 teachers had been trained in basic computer skills and ICT equipment by 2011. It also found that 27% of schools in KwaZulu-Natal are without electricity, and 8% of Eastern Cape schools do not have adequate buildings to host classes. That’s not due to lack of trying. The report found that government is definitely making the effort to push e-learning in South Africa.

    ‘There are a minimum of six different governmental policy papers on implementing e-learning in education, available to the provinces. All provinces are running a minimum of three strategies concurrently, with one running five,’ stated the report.

    Craig Reid, CEO of Fuel, a South African online training company, says that the environment in which children live is filled with interactivity. ‘Think 3D movies, online games and iPads. Yet at school, teachers teach in front of a static board using methods that haven’t changed significantly since the 19th century. We believe this is outdated and failing our children,’ he says.

    Reid’s firm invested some ZAR7.5 million in a digital-schools solution, which breaks each subject into 10-minute, CAPS-aligned interactive modules. These can be downloaded and accessed on tablets. This type of solution could be rolled out across Africa, both in schools and – perhaps just as importantly – in adult education.

    Ahead of last year’s eLearning Africa conference in Uganda, founder Rebecca Stromeyer said in a statement: ‘Many African countries are seeking to diversify their economies and stimulate sectors such as tourism and finance, but skills shortages are preventing them from doing so. E-learning will allow more and more African countries to easily train the next generation of in-demand workers.’

    Bitange Ndemo, former permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication, was a keynote speaker at the conference. He emphasised the importance of vocational skills development. ‘We’ve spent many years trying to focus on theory and hoping that it will translate to skills.

    ‘This is a false belief. Countries that are successful have a strong skills-development programme. In Kenya, whilst there are many jobs, there is widespread unemployment because the youth lack the skills. This problem can be solved if online content in all trades, including soft skills, is widely accessible. Many youth are known to shun vocational training in favour of non-existent, white-collar jobs. There is a need to encourage the youth to take up blue-collar skills that offer many opportunities for training,’ he said.

    According to a 2014 interview with the Guardian, Stromeyer was once told by an African permanent secretary that the answer to Africa’s education woes was e-learning. Her immediate response was that her generation’s level of education was not dependent on the added assistance of technology.

    However what is absolutely essential, she argued, is adequate teacher training. ‘But e-learning is also very important, especially in the internet-, technology-driven world we live in. For Africa, it can be a valuable tool in improving access to education.

    ‘For example, to produce textbooks and distribute them across schools is hugely expensive and very difficult, whereas online access to information such as teaching resources and lesson plans, which can be used to build a curriculum, is cheap and easy once the technology and infrastructure is in place and the teacher is trained to use it,’ she said.

    Cheap? Sure. Easy? Not as much. Again, let’s focus on South Africa.

    Reid says that Fuel can produce the entire curriculum from Grade 1 to 12, for all provinces and across all subjects, for about the same amount that two provinces will spend on text books annually.

    ‘It costs the government approximately R160 per learner per year to produce educational textbooks.

    ‘Fuel can do the same thing, digitally, for R35 per learner in the first year. Thereafter it is free until there is an upgrade required, which will be done at a minimal cost,’ he says.

    Sounds simple. But it becomes complicated when each subject, for every grade, in every language, has to be created, and has to be relevant to the different end-environments.

    Reid also points to the vast difference in education standards. ‘Parents with means are able to send their children to top-performing schools, where they receive an education that allows them to enter the first world and participate in the global economy,’ he says.

    ‘Other schools offer an education that does not necessarily adequately equip children to participate in the workplace.

    ‘Although some learners are able to graduate, despite the barriers, and go on to be productive members of the workforce, for the large part the standard public education system condemns them to a life working as an unskilled or semi-skilled person.

    ‘For many, this means underemployment or even unemployment.’

    The need – or the market – for e-learning is there. The real question, according to Bez Sangari, is how best to roll it out across an increasingly connected continent. Sangari is MD of Sangari South Africa, which supplies training solutions. He claims that more than ZAR16 billion is being spent annually on CSI projects in South Africa, of which about half is spent on technology-based education drives.

    However, he says, at least half of these initiatives fail and this amounts to about ZAR4 billion wasted annually – mainly by JSE-listed companies.

    ‘Engaging with all the stakeholders involved is crucial. This includes headmasters, teachers, parents, regional educational directors, as well as community bodies. Without regional, political and community buy-in, the project could be doomed for failure,’ he says.

    ‘Other schools offer an education that does not necessarily adequately equip children to participate in the workplace’

    In February this year, Samsung Electronics Africa teamed up with Senegal’s Ministry of Education to launch a Samsung ‘smart school’ in Dakar.

    This follows the early success of similar smart schools in Mali, Kenya, Rwanda, the DRC and Sudan.

    At the launch, Plan Jaxaay Secondary School received an integrated platform. It includes a feature that allows teachers to track educational content on their learners’ screens – monitoring via screen-sharing as well as real-time question-and-answers.

    ‘The future of education is about accessing information and collaborating locally and globally. Teaching and learning has become social; this has become possible with the emergence of initiatives such as the Samsung smart school,’ says Samba Guisse, IT advisor at Senegal’s Ministry of National Education.

    It’s a statement that no doubt pleased the sponsors.

    However, the sentiment was echoed just two days later, almost 7 000 km away, when Samsung Electronics South Africa handed over a smart-school solution to Mabake Secondary School in rural Rathoke, Limpopo.

    ‘Even though the school is faced with a number of serious issues, all efforts are made by educators to minimise these problems,’ school principal William Themane said at the launch.

    ‘We are very humbled and honoured to receive this level of technology from the Samsung Smart School Solution, which will help to assist these young learners with the resources required to upskill their level of education and provide them with an opportunity to succeed, despite their overwhelming circumstances,’ he said.

    The roll-out may be slow but, at this early stage, the teachers, students, sponsors and state officials involved in Africa’s e-learning projects deserve an ‘A for effort’.

    By Will Sinclair
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages