Rural children in Limpopo now have access to state of the art computer labs that will give them the tools to become skilled in digital technologies.
Set to assist 16 schools in the Hlanganani and Vuwani districts, the Masia Maths and Science Academy (MMSA) gives children access to technology tools and teachers on a regular basis.
Many children in rural areas run the risk of being left behind as schools in urban areas adopt digital first technologies.
"When we wrote our proposal to the SAME Foundation to help us with a computer lab, it was because our learners were lacking the digital knowledge skills and it frustrates them when they reach tertiary level," one of the MMSA's founders, Portia Marageni Ntendeni, told News24.
And the programme is set to expand.
"In 2020, the MMSA is teaching basic computer literacy to the learners who are admitted in the programme and the host school is incorporating basic computer lessons to all learners in the schools. About two primary schools have also requested the MMSA to use the computer lab in order to teach their learners basic computer literacy twice a week in the afternoon," Ntendeni said.
Needs of rural children
The government has partnered with a number of NGOs to make digital education a priority in the National Development Plan, executed through such projects as Operation Phakisa ICT in Education Lab, SchoolNet Projects, and others.
However, some of these plans do not adequately serve the needs of rural children.
In their analysis of the ICT education landscape, Unisa and CSIR researchers Tholo Pholotho and Jabu Mtsweni, wrote more needed to be done to support rural and poor schools.
"From the aforementioned initiatives, it might be safe to conclude that the DBE [Department of Basic Education] and other stakeholders are doing enough to support teaching and learning through ICTs. However, researchers noted that the large portion of resource-constrained schools have limited or no access to ICT infrastructure and teaching materials such as textbooks."
And beyond ICT, Pholotho and Mtsweni argued there were constraints of geography, electricity and security for technology rollouts.
The advantage of the MMSA programme is local deployment.
"Learners use the laboratories almost every day because it is a centre for different schools in the region with about 20 schools using the MMSA's facilities. Learners in the MMSA programme have one hour every Saturday to be in their junior natural science lab and then one hour for basic computer literacy," said Ntendeni.
Host schools are also encouraged to have basic computer literacy classes and the MMSA programme currently relies on teachers to help in the science lab until they can afford to hire specialised facilitators.
The programme is also focused on getting the gender balance right so that girls are not left behind in what some regard as a male field.
"A girl child in the rural area is still groomed to become better wife than cementing their moves in the career world and making their own money. For that reason the MMSA has admitted more girls than boys. We believe women empowerment starts with giving the opportunity to the girl child before she becomes a woman," said Ntendeni.
There are 143 pupils in the programme of which 85 are girls and all do maths and physical science in Grade 10.
"This opens the opportunity for some of them to opt for computer engineering in the near future. During the take a girl child to work week, we are looking forward to working with corporates in order to give our girls the opportunity to explore more about fourth industrial revolution careers," Ntendeni said.
The SAME Foundation, which funds the MMSA project, has had some success with digital education in other areas that it hopes to replicate in Limpopo.
At Diepdale Secondary, the foundation's initiatives resulted in an increase of the 2019 Grade 12 physical science pass mark from 41% to 79.3%; life science jumped from 52% to 71%; and the school had 46 bachelor passes, compared to 23 in 2017.
At Lofentse Girls School, the 2019 matric pass rate increased to 87% from 79% in 2017. Pass marks in physical science increased 9% and life science 23%.
News24 reported that Limpopo had the lowest pass rate in 2019 at 73.2%, some distance behind top province the Free State at 88.4%. The National Senior Certificate pass rate was 81.3%.