A Japanese proverb describes a great teacher as being better than a thousand days of diligent study. But, for one reason or another, great teachers are hard to come by in South Africa, and the situation is not expected to improve. While the Department of Basic Education (DBE) says it isn’t concerned by an expected teacher shortage in the near future, recent research from Stellenbosch University’s Research on Socioeconomic Policy Unit (RESEP) shows that around half of the current public school teacher population is over the age of 55 and will soon be due for retirement. As such, the country needs as much as 25 000 graduates annually in order to maintain a good teacher-pupil ratio.
With this in mind, there’s a need to come up with ways to enable the teachers we have to do more with less. According to the World Bank, technology can be used to coach and mentor teachers more effectively, complement teachers’ knowledge, create virtual communities where teachers can share ideas and information, and manage teachers more effectively and deploy them more strategically.
South Africa’s basic education system has become seriously challenged over the years, necessitating an exploration of digital solutions in an attempt to improve teaching and learning, says Setlogane Manchidi, head of corporate social investment at Investec. It’s quite straightforward, he adds. By making technology a part of teaching, pupils can connect with the best teachers without having to be in the same room. This can be particularly effective in some of our most rural and under-resourced communities.
For Vineet Ladia, founder and director of Edukite South Africa, technology can remove some of the drudgery around lesson-planning, setting and conducting assessments and marking. This frees up time for more important classroom interaction and remedial sessions. For example, educators can use AI to streamline and improve online assessments, making it possible to personalise learning for each scholar, says Khomotjo Mashele, high school product manager at SPARK Schools. With more precise interventions in place – that focus on the scholar as an individual as opposed to the general interventions that treat scholars as averages – results can be improved.
Using technology, the best teachers the country can connect with pupils anywhere, Ladia says. Beyond this, the shortage of quality teachers can also be addressed through online training programmes that upskill and retrain existing teachers to address their knowledge and teaching gaps. “When thinking about the skills needed to bring tech into the classroom, it’s important to highlight that education is an ever-evolving field of work,” says Mashele, adding that with any evolution or change come ripple effects. “With this in mind, we must remember that teacher professional development is essential and should form part of the natural progression of any educator’s professional life. And so the issue is not a lack of expertise, but, rather, a lack of investment in professional development.”
Something that is often overlooked is that when teaching in schools becomes more modern, interesting and fulfilling, more of our matriculants will choose teaching as a profession.Vineet Ladia, Edukite South Africa
When technology is used to enhance the overall experience of our teachers, more teachers are attracted to the profession, says Ladia. “Something that is often overlooked is that when teaching in schools becomes more modern, interesting and fulfilling, more of our matriculants will pursue teaching as a profession. This strategy can address the teacher shortage issue in the long run.”
But there are many obstacles to successful tech deployment in our local schools.
South Africa and Africa as a whole have fallen behind in using technology to enjoy broader educational reach, says Kutlwano Rawana, chief of people at Rectron. Improving this demands that the government and the private sector, particularly businesses in the telecoms and technology sectors, act in concert to develop strategies and programmes to bridge this gap. According to Mashele, access is the greatest barrier to the use of new technologies, particularly when one looks at communities with different socioeconomic standings. Steve Flynn, sales and marketing director at ESET Southern Africa, agrees, saying that some cities and towns have seen a relatively high adoption of technology in education. Many schools have implemented online learning management systems, interactive whiteboards and educational apps to enhance the learning experience for pupils. Many schools in rural areas still rely on traditional teaching methods and are unable to leverage modern tools and technologies to improve teaching and learning outcomes.
Cost is another major stumbling block, says Mashele. We cannot forget that these technologies are expensive and that internet access is also costly, meaning that many of the modern edtech solutions that are readily available across schools in more affluent suburbs are harder to come by in rural and semi-rural settings. And even if scholars can use these resources at school, when they’re at home, many families can’t afford new technologies. In the instances where they can, there remain a number of misconceptions that technology is not an educational tool, she says. Mashele also cites the reduced availability of electricity due to loadshedding as realities that make it much harder for the right technologies to reach the teachers and pupils who need them most.
Investec’s Manchidi says preparing teachers for this change is critical. The onboarding of teachers who have become accustomed to traditional ways of teaching is sometimes difficult because some are afraid of technology and find navigating such platforms difficult. Extra effort is required, he says. Citing experiences from the deployment of their own online learning programme, called Promaths, Manchidi says that by providing a space where teachers can connect with each other, prepare lessons together and share teaching techniques, they can ensure that the change to online learning and tech-enabled teaching is smoother because the teachers feel like they are in it together.
Our basic education system has become seriously challenged over the years necessitating an exploration of different digital solutions in an attempt to improve, as best as we can, teaching and learning.Setlogane Manchidi, Investec
For Ladia, the success of any tech deployment comes down to planning, and considering what needs to be in place to enable the proper use of these tools by pupils and teachers.
Technology is not the solution to our local learning crisis, but it can help us address some of the challenges relating to teacher shortages. That being said, if our schools are going to invest in new technologies, it’s important that they also prioritise training, support and the maintenance of these resources so that they can be used to their full potential. By leveraging the power of technology, we can provide better quality education to more students and we can also support teachers in their efforts to improve student outcomes.
Currently, most educational institutions are teaching answers. But, as we look to the future, how can we continue doing this when we don’t even know what the questions will be or what problems we’ll be trying to solve? Per Ostberg, a futurist, author and entrepreneur, says this demands a paradigm shift in how we prepare children for the future. Young people need to be curious, critical thinkers, analytical problem-solvers and challengers of the norms if they are to find the answers to the big problems of the future. Teachers of the future have an incredible responsibility to create these curious and analytical problem-solvers. They should not be an authority on facts or a source of absolute truths. Teachers should be coaches, nurturing and guiding young, adaptive minds to enjoy ambiguity, to think critically and be independent.
How can tech help?
According to Shaun Fuchs, CEO and founder of Centennial Schools, there are several ways that technology can be used to mitigate the lack of teachers in general, as well as a lack of teachers with technical skills and expertise. These include:
Online learning platforms: Pupils can learn from anywhere, at any time. These platforms can be used to provide access to quality education to pupils who might not have access. This can reduce the burden on teachers and help fill the gap created by the lack of teachers.
Learning Management Systems (LMS): These canbe used to automate many administrative tasks such as tracking attendance, grading assignments and providing feedback to pupils. This frees up teachers' time, allowing them to focus on teaching and providing personalised support to students.
Digital content: E-books, videos and interactive learning tools can supplement classroom instruction. This provides pupils with more resources to support their learning and reduces the need for teachers to create their own materials.
Collaboration tools: Video conferencing platforms and chats and online discussion forums can be used to facilitate communication between teachers and pupils. This helps teachers to stay connected with pupils and empowers them to provide additional support outside of the classroom. At Centennial Schools, the use of the Microsoft Suite is a strong enabler of this.
Teacher training: Technology can be used to provide teachers with training and professional development to enhance their technical skills and expertise. This kind of training includes anything from online courses and webinars to skills workshops.
A lesson in cybersecurity
Within any connected environment, cybersecurity must be front of mind, says ESET Southern Africa’s Steve Flynn. “Although implementing new technologies has multiple benefits for schools, it also comes with a cybersecurity risk if the necessary steps are not implemented,” he says. Our schools have access to valuable personal and academic information, which makes educational institutions a prime target for cybercriminals seeking to steal sensitive information of their teachers and students. “Students, faculty and staff may not be aware of the cybersecurity risks and how to protect against them, making them more susceptible to cyber threats.” Limited budgets and resources often make it difficult to implement cybersecurity measures in schools. Given the fact that students and teachers are often not informed about the potential cybersecurity risks when using technology, they are more likely to fall victim to phishing attacks and cyber manipulation.
* Article first published on brainstorm.itweb.co.za