Govt eyes digital revolution in education

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 08 Feb 2019
Government promises to ensure each South African learner.
Government promises to ensure each South African learner.

South Africa's education system will undergo a revamp, as government looks to equip every school child with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device over the next six years.

This is the bold promise made by president Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday evening, delivering the State of the Nation Address (SONA) during a joint sitting of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.

Ramaphosa revealed government has identified five urgent tasks it needs to address, and the education system is one such case.

He noted that in order to achieve equitable growth, draw young people into employment and prepare the country for the digital age, the state must prioritise education and the development of skills that are needed now and into the future.

"We will start with those schools that have been historically most disadvantaged and are located in the poorest communities, including multi-grade, multi-phase, farm and rural schools."

Learning from past mistakes

While government efforts to improve SA's education system are commendable, there are fears that such an initiative will not get off the ground and flourish. Government has a long history of technology projects that have fallen by the wayside.

For example, the Gauteng Online project, whose aim was to supply tablets and connectivity to over 2 000 public schools in the province, regularly came under fire for allegedly being ineffective.

There is also the issue of combatting theft of these devices.

At provincial level, the Gauteng Department Education is championing the paperless classroom initiative, which sees classrooms connected to high-speed broadband and equipped with interactive smart boards. Teachers receive laptops and tablets for learners. Despite making strides in advancing ICT adoption in schools, the department continues to deal with theft incidents.

IDC associate vice-president for Sub-Saharan Africa Mark Walker says the government policy is admirable, especially given the critical shortage of skills, poor pass rates and weak education infrastructure.

However, he believes that applying technology to solve the problems in education will not be a universal panacea, as underlying issues such as poor teaching methods, weak educational sector management, and lack of well-qualified teachers are amplified by technology.

"Supplying laptops alone will not solve underlying issues negatively impacting the South African education sector. A holistic approach is needed where technology is an enabler to learning and access to knowledge. Furthermore, issues related to procurement, training, project governance and supplier management need to be carefully monitored and proactively managed to ensure objectives are reached."

Moira de Roche, independent learning specialist and director of the Institute of IT Professionals SA, expressed delight at the government plans.

Such an initiative will require all stakeholders, namely teachers, parents and communities, to be on board in order for it to work, notes De Roche.

"Everyone must support it. Once it becomes a way of life we will be okay, but this takes several years.

"I only hope the education department takes note of research about which devices are best to support digital text books. They must be easy to read and allow the learner to add notes easily, preferably by writing directly on the device. They must not decide to go with a cheap tablet, but rather with the right device. I also think some unlearning and relearning is required, because a different mindset is needed by the learners."

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his SONA.
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his SONA.

Digital future

Since taking office in February 2018, the president and his administration have dedicated attention to the fourth industrial revolution and how to equip citizens with the necessary skills to thrive in a digital society.

He used last night's address to drive home the importance of technology and innovation for the South African economy going forward.

Government has described youth unemployment as one of the most significant socio-economic challenges facing the country today.

In line with the proposed education system overhaul, Ramaphosa said government also wants to introduce several new technology subjects and specialisations, including technical mathematics and technical sciences, maritime and mining sciences, as well as aviation studies, to list a few.

He went on to say plans are in place to expand the training of both educators and learners to respond to emerging technologies, including the Internet of things, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Reshaad Sha, CEO of Liquid Telecom SA, says: "The fourth industrial revolution, like digital transformation, is on the agenda for every organisation in the country and also on the continent. We can see that education, skills development, jobs for the future are all being impacted by the proliferation of digital technology."