Tablets a cure in rural schools






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Innovation – Shaping South Africa Through Science by Sarah Wild

Pan Macmillan

256 pages

R220 at takealot.com

Luphumzo Ntwanambi is small for his age. The 15-year-old, who is in Grade 9, sits nervously in his headmaster’s small office in Mvuso Junior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape. His clothes are neat, but show obvious signs of wear and tear: a white collar frayed around the neckline, a jersey whose warmth has been washed thin. But in this rural part of the province, few people are wealthy.

For most learners in the area, education is not a way to break the cycle of poverty. In the 2014 matric results, the Eastern Cape was the country’s worst-performing province, with fewer than two-thirds of matriculants passing. Poor marks, however, start in earlier grades. In the 2014 Annual National Assessments undertaken by the department of basic education, the average mark for mathematics among Grade 9 learners was 11.1%, for their home language (isiXhosa) it was 38%.

But learners in the iNciba district in Cofimvaba have been thrown a technological lifeline: Information Communication Technology for Rural Education Development (ICT4RED), a large-scale pilot project in the 26 schools in the district, which aims to use technology to bridge the gaps in learner education.

This is why Ntwanambi’s school – comprising three small buildings organised in a U-shape, pit toilets contained in corrugated iron shells about 20 metres away from the simple school structure, and a container kitchen – has state of the art tablets and a central server sending apps and lessons to learners via Wi-Fi. He says the tablet technology has helped him with maths, and is guiding him with his career choices. He wants to be a lawyer.

‘Nearby schools are jealous,’ says headmaster Mpunzi Mqombothi, gesticulating out the window of his office. ‘The schools up the mountain, the high school, they do not have tablets. The children move to this area to get a better education.’ The majority of schools in the district are junior schools, which means they cater for learners from Grade R (preschool) through to Grade 9, and there are only three high schools included in the ICT4RED project.

ICT4RED forms part of a larger programme: Technology for Rural Education and Development (Tech4RED), an initiative that includes a plethora of government departments and organisations, namely the national departments of science and technology, rural development and land reform, and basic education, as well as provincial government departments and the CSIR’s Meraka Institute.

According to Nonhlanhla Mkhize, the chief director for innovation-inclusive development in the department of science and technology, the Tech4RED programme includes ICT, e-health, sanitation, energy, nutrition, science centres and an appropriate monitoring, evaluation and learning framework.

‘The basis for the programme is to ask: How can we contribute to improving education service delivery?’ she says. ‘How can we apply new and existing technologies to assist or contribute to improving the quality of basic education?’

Regarding the ICT4RED project, she points to the white paper on e-education of 2004, stating that this formed the guidelines for the intervention. It says that ‘The challenge is to roll out ICT infrastructure that is specifically suited to Africa. Through appropriate technologies, it is hoped that South Africa will leapfrog into the new century, bypassing the unnecessary adoption cycle, and implement a solution that works now and has the capacity to handle future developments.’

Mvuzo Junior Secondary School, which is located off the R61 that runs between Queenstown and Cofimvaba, has 376 learners, taught by nine teachers, says Mqombothi, including himself. The school has been given 150 tablets, so one is shared between two students, excluding those of Grade R. Every morning, the tablets are handed out to learners and each afternoon they are packed away again. In the room next to the headmaster’s office, secured with an intimidating security gate, the large metal cases containing the tablets sit next to a large server.

‘We have textbooks, but the tablets could replace them – they have enhanced learning for our students. The pass mark has gone up, from 70% to 97%,’ says Mqombothi.

The roll-out of ICT4RED, which has a total price tag of about R71 million, began in 2012 with Arthur Mfebe Senior Secondary School in Cofimvaba, followed by another 13 schools in 2013 and then 12 in 2014. There is a range of tablets, from Samsung to Huawei, some with Wi-Fi, others with 3G, each a trial to see which technology fits with which school.

However, even within the relatively small iNciba district, schools vary dramatically. In Zamuxolo, the learners are asked to leave their classroom when I arrive to interview their headmistress, Nomonde Tyembile: there is no staffroom or principal’s office, so the only place to do the interview is in one of the classrooms. This school, which also teaches Grade R through to Grade 9, is not as well resourced as Mvuso: there are eight classrooms contained in two buildings, a grade in each class. Grade R and Grade 7 students are taught in mud rondavels, with broken windows and doors.

Tyembile, one of 11 teachers at the school, which has 380 learners, says that the introduction of the technology to her school eases the frustrations.

‘Even in this situation,’ she gestures to the broken windows and cramped space, ‘there are some good things that we can get.’

The teachers and learners can download subject-specific apps, as well as the curriculum from the provincial department of education. She acknowledges that there are still challenges, though. On the day of my visit, for example, there is no electricity at the school, so they cannot charge the tablets. Despite its pit latrines and a corrugated structure used as a kitchen that also houses schoolbooks because books in classrooms would take up space needed for learners, Zamuxolo has a pass rate of 95%. Tyembile, who has been headmistress since 2000, puts it down to dedicated teachers and the ‘infusion of technology’.

‘Maths and English language have improved since we got the tablets in 2013. This year, because there is more [content and apps] on the tablet, we are able to download more,’ she says. The apps and content have been developed for South African schools, with many of the interactive games teaching learners while they ‘play’ on the tablets.

Sindiswa Sibawu, who is in charge of e-learning in the Cofimvaba district’s department of basic education, says that while exposing learners to the technology is important, it is also important for teachers. ‘The educators also had to do modules to get qualified and had to be assessed, aligned with the curriculum,’ she says.

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But the question mark that hangs over ICT4RED schools is: What happens when the project is over?

Mkhize says that the goal of the project, for the department of science and technology, was also to generate data and evidence to support evidence-based decision-making in the integration of ICTs into the teaching and learning process: ‘We need to be able to say, “These are the numbers: these are the number of schools using the hardware, these are the schools that are not using it for these reasons.”’

She says that her department’s role was to investigate how to roll out ICT in this rural district, with the goal of a model that was scaleable. ‘How many schools do you know that received desktop computers? Do the teachers know how to use them? And then what if there is no content on the computers? No power?’

There needs to be a plan to integrate ICT: ‘It’s not just about handing out hardware: we had to investigate the most appropriate way of doing this, finding a model for teacher development, and making sure that, over and above the tablets, there is a place to charge them, make them safe,’ Mkhize says.

‘When the department of science and technology conceptualised the Tech4RED programme, it was with the understanding that the provincial departments of education are responsible for basic education service delivery,’ says Mkhize.

‘The department of science and technology cannot be responsible for the large-scale delivery of services like the department of basic education … The only way you can make it sustainable is when the provincial department takes over. The key thing is to help it to institutionalise the ideas so that it’s their project,’ she says. ‘There is a commitment from the provincial department of basic education to scale up. We will continue to work with them for the next two to three years, but at some point we have to stand back.’

Asked about the introduction of tablet technology into rural schools, civil society group Equal Education’s Daniel Linde is sceptical. ‘It’s not necessarily the best direction of funds,’ he says. ‘If conditions for learning and teaching were better, if there were flushing toilets across the province, if schools had reliable electricity and sources of water, all of those things could lead to learners wanting to come to school more and a more conducive learning and teaching environment.’

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