Don't wait for paperless classrooms
Digital education experts advise against waiting for "paperless" classrooms to deliver the benefits of digital education.
"I don't think we're ready for [paperless classrooms], and we have to be realistic about it," says Martine Schaffer, CEO of The Click Foundation, an organisation implementing technology-based literacy solutions in community centres and under-resourced schools.
Schaffer stresses the immense cost involved in equipping every learner with a notebook or tablet, adding this cost is constantly renewed when hardware becomes outdated.
"Digital education is often determined by where the money is coming from," agrees Mark Swartz, projects co-ordinator at Green Shoots, an educational organisation implementing technology-based mathematics education at Western Cape schools.
While people are very comfortable with investing in hardware and software, they are often unwilling to invest in "warmware": the training and support needed to implement it, he adds.
Schaffer advocates a "mixed approach" to digital education, encouraging technology that supplements classroom activity rather than replacing it.
"We don't want to replace teachers, but support and empower them," adds Jo Besford, curriculum co-ordinator at Green Shoots.
Green Shoots implements a cloud-based, device-neutral program called Maths Curriculum Online, which learners can access at home as well as at school. The Click Foundation uses Reading Eggs, a similarly device-neutral program that builds primary school English language and literacy skills. Both organisations work with the hardware schools already have - "mostly under-utilised computer rooms," says Schaffer.
But often, a learner's phone is their most powerful tool for furthering their education outside the classroom, says Andrew Rudge, CEO of the Reach Trust. Formerly known as Mxit Reach, the Reach Trust aims to provide education, early childhood development, healthcare and counselling resources users can access through Mxit, an instant messaging platform optimised for feature phones, which also works on smartphones.
Reach's educational resources include Fundza, a Mxit and Android app giving users mobile access to books written by local authors in a variety of South African languages, and the Ukufunda Virtual School, a Mxit app providing education-related support structures such as counselling and career guidance. Ukufunda was developed in partnership with the Department of Basic Education and Unicef.
Reach also offers curriculum-focused Mxit apps, including ReThink Education, which delivers interactive maths and science content, presented in a chat-style, "Q&A" format.
The service is focusing on optimising the platform for Android, iOS and BlackBerry, and has an average of 800 000 to one million unique users each month, says Rudge.
Because Reach is built on an interactive messaging platform, people are willing to engage, Rudge says, stressing the importance of easy access for users.
"That's why technology is so important to us," says Mignon Hardie, executive director at Fundza. "If we can reach people in the space in which they are already spending time - on their phones - and in ways that are affordable, we believe we can spark a reading revolution."
Besford says using a computer program that allows learners to choose their own pace helps them take ownership of their learning process: an important aspect of self-motivation.
Swartz talks about how the Maths Curriculum Online program allows teachers to focus more on how they are teaching as it marks learners' work in real-time. Detailed, per-learner feedback shows the teacher which part of the topic learners do not understand, helping them fine-tune their teaching strategy in time for the group's next class, he explains.
Schaffer adds Reading Eggs helps children learn classroom skills like understanding and following instructions. Being able to try, and make mistakes, with immediate feedback and without being watched by their peers helps children build the confidence they need to participate in class, she adds.
While education organisations and the technological solutions they offer can deliver huge benefits to schools and learners with even rudimentary technology, gaining the buy-in of the school and its officials is vital, says Swartz.
It is important that externally-based technological education initiatives are viewed not as interventions, but taken on board as part of the school's teaching methods in order for them to be sustainable.
Rudge says content selection and creation also play an important role. Access to relevant content boosts literacy levels, as it is more accessible and interesting to readers, Hardie explains. There is a need for digital education resources that are refined to the South African curriculum, says Rudge.
"There's a danger of exposing learners to too much stuff that isn't of a high enough quality," Rudge adds, highlighting the pitfalls of the Internet's vast array of resources. Another important task in digital education is sifting through popular educational content online and informing students of what is and is not reliable, he continues.
"We must be wary of falling into the trap that says 'digital education will solve all our problems'. It is an enabler but not a magic wand," Rudge concludes.