'Deeper than connectivity': Education specialist talks online learning and digital empowerment in SA

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"The continuation of education depends on digital solutions." (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)
"The continuation of education depends on digital solutions." (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

As much as education technology has curbed the disruption to the 2020 academic year, it has also fuelled fundamental talks around the fragmented state of education in South Africa.  

Making up two-thirds of SA's schooling system, no-fee schools "are more likely to lack digital infrastructure and capabilities," says Dr Michael Gastrow, a Chief Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council

"Education in South Africa is deeply fractured and unequal. Access to quality education still depends to a large degree on whether learners are black or white, urban, or rural, middle class or poor. These divisions create a school system for the more privileged that is privatised, technologically developed, and digitally connected, and a system for the marginalised that is under-funded, technologically under-developed, and disconnected from the digital world," warns the education and skills development expert.  

And while connectivity has been identified as an important factor in narrowing the digital divide, Dr Gastrow views it as one of many requirements in developing an "e-literate society". 

"The digital divide is deeper than only internet connectivity... learners in marginalised communities may have a connection, but insufficient resources for data. South Africa's data pricing system, set through essentially oligopolistic private sector actors, is undermining its education system, and this link should be further interrogated," he says.  

Building basic digital literacy skills 

In addition to South Africa's data pricing system, Dr Gastrow says building basic digital literacy skills also need to be addressed.   

"An internet connection does not bridge the digital divide if schools do not have the requisite skills to operate and maintain digital systems."  

According to Dr Gastrow, pupils will need to be upskilled in: 

1) Navigating interactive teaching platforms. 

2) Navigating online knowledge resources to find and use new knowledge in a goal-directed and constructive manner. 

Suggesting a national programme of school infrastructure development and curricula for online learning as possible government intervention strategies, Dr Gastrow believes that digital tools are key to "the continuation of education".   

"The establishment of nationally applicable standards, tools, content, and curricula for online learning would be of great value during this time - and would continue to hold significant value after the pandemic. The interplay between the physical and digital worlds has never been more significant - the continuation of education depends on digital solutions". 

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