Arthur Goldstuck

Online lessons for learners

2007-11-30 13:18

One of South Africa's great promises of internet connectivity of the early 2000s was the Gauteng Online project, first announced on February 12 2001 by Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa. It was to be a provincial government Internet Service Provider (ISP), with the stated mission of providing every scholar in the province with an e-mail address.

Speaking at the opening of the Gauteng provincial legislature in 2001, Shilowa stated that Government had an important role to play in ensuring that the benefits of the information and communication technology revolution were not confined to the elite, but were used as a tool for the development and empowerment of society.

"By 2006, every learner at a public school should have a personal e-mail address, which they can use anywhere there is a web-enabled facility," Shilowa said. He pledged the government to providing the software and teacher training needed to make the initiative sustainable. Some R500m was allocated to the programme, which was to serve an estimated 1.5 million pupils.

This meant that, had the plan worked, by 2006 more than two million South Africans would have had access to the internet through academic institutions.

The Gauteng Online initiative therefore promised to provide the strongest driver of growth in internet access in South Africa this decade.

Money making no difference

However, the initial implementation of the project has been a failure. And that is a euphemism. Some would argue that "disaster" is a more apt description. A further R100m was allocated, and that too made no difference.

The target date has now been shifted to 2013, as the following vision statement on the project's website attests:

"Every South African learner in the GET and FET bands will be ICT capable (that is, use ICTs confidently and creatively to help develop the skills and knowledge they need to achieve personal goals and to be full participants in the global community) by 2013."

Unfortunately, the reasons for the previous failure have only been superficially explored, and the danger exists that the mistakes of the recent past will not be adequately addressed.

A core problem is that the Gauteng Online project suffered from a "cargo culture" mentality, which is the brand of thinking that results in technology and equipment being offloaded onto a community without regard for the specific needs and circumstances of that community.

The result of cargo culture, inevitably, is the wrong technology, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong support structure built around it.

It may help that the project has now been handed over to the Gauteng Shared Services Centre (GSSC) from the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE). It may even help that Paul Mashatile, MEC for finance and economic affairs in Gauteng, allocated an additional R200m to the project this year.

However, the Province has given no indication of a greater understanding of the complexities of connecting schools. It has given no indication of an improved ability to manage a project with the objective of connecting all schools.

Offering solutions

Even identifying schools that would benefit has proved to be an obstacle. Among the issues identified in the earlier failure: while the schools were selected to represent the full range of socio-economic, historical, geographic and educational conditions in the province, the Gauteng Government was unaware of how many schools were without facilities like electricity.

There is little point in criticising without offering solutions or alternatives. However, books can be written on the subject, while the reality is that one such alternative already exists. SchoolNet South Africa has a long track record and it remains South Africa's most successful schools connectivity programme to date.

It is a non-governmental organisation established in 1997 with support from the Canadian funders IDRC and the national Department of Education to advance educationally effective uses of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in schools.

In recent years, it has continued to form partnerships with role players in the field of educational ICT. Most important, while rolling out large and small projects, SchoolNet SA has created goodwill among teachers and the schools in which it has worked. This year, the e-Schools' Network reported 1 700 schools using the services of SchoolNet.

A document on the SchoolNet site entitled "Capability Statement - SchoolNet SA" indicates the effectiveness of an integrated route based on a holistic programme, rather than the cargo culture approach taken by the Gauteng Government.

In other words, a viable approach has been staring the authorities in the face for more than a decade. The time for excuses is past, and delivery on promises is overdue.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is an award-winning author and journalist, and is managing director of World Wide Worx, which leads research into Internet and mobile communications in South Africa. Visit his urban legends blog at http://thoselegends.blogspot.comand or his business blog at http://www.thebigchange.com.

    Send your comments to Arthur.

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