Tablets in schools not magic, says expert

Cape Town - New tablet technology will not automatically result in better education and policy should dictate a robust technology approach in schools, says a local expert.

"It is a mistake to think that the novelty of technology will automatically translate into better learning. In fact, it may be a distraction, unless teachers acquire sufficient skills to use technology as a teaching and learning tool," Kobus Van Wyk, head of e-Learning at Mustek, told Fin24.

Van Wyk was responding to reports of a massive roll-out of tablets by the Gauteng Education department, which has tasked EduSolutions with delivering technology worth R200m to schools in the province.

The programme forms part of Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi's R17bn project to make schools paperless by introducing tablets and other technology to boost education.

"Many (most) teachers do not know how to adapt their teaching and classroom management practices when technology is thrust upon them. So, the physical distribution is not a problem (although it appears to be a challenge for some suppliers) but the use of the devices for its supposedly intended purposes," said Van Wyk.

Rule of thumb

He was responsible for the Khanya Project which was tasked with equipping schools in the Western Cape with computer technologies.

In the decade that the project ran, he spent a budget of R1bn and trained 27 000 teachers to use technology in the classroom.

His rule of thumb for technology deployment is that half of the budget should be set aside for teacher training and ongoing support to ensure that the institutions and government derive value from the technology.

Tablets in schools cannot be expected to deliver miracles in education. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Tablets are consumer devices that are difficult to upgrade or repair cost effectively, said Van Wyk.

"In any case, there are not many things in a tablet you can replace ... the battery and screen being exceptions.  So, many suppliers simply replace faulty units under warranty with new ones, rather than trying to 'fix' them," he said.

It is unclear whether the deal between the Gauteng department and EduSolutions includes ongoing hardware support and the responsibility for the cost of replacements that may become non-functional.

"This implies that the supplier should hold sufficient spare devices of a particular model in stock in order to honour warranty arrangements, or be willing and able to replace a faulty unit with a later model," said Van Wyk.

Watch this News24 Live video on how much training teachers need to roll out digital education:

'Free' software

A number of educational tablet providers offer schools deals where the institution leases software. However, international experience has shown that sometimes the school is locked into paying for software that doesn't add value to the curriculum.

"Educational institutions should always be responsible for content, particularly the selection of the content. This could by textbooks. If you think about it, with paper based books it has always been the responsibility of education to select and prescribe these books, and with e-books it should be no different," Van Wyk said.

However, he cautioned against companies bundling free software on devices, often in effort to win supply tenders.

"Education must beware of suppliers who claim to 'bundle' free software with tablets ... invariably this content is of little (or no) value."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

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