Catching up to the kids
Years ago, a local farmer's wife wanted to keep ducks, but could not find any for sale. Someone gave her six duck eggs and told her to let a chicken hatch them. She did that, and soon, six little ducks entered the world. The hen tried her best to feed and teach the ducklings. They followed their mother hen everywhere - until they smelled water and marched off into the farm dam. They swam and dived and had a great time...while the hen went frantic on land.
"It was very funny to watch. The problem is, if the mother hen had been a mother duck, she could have taught them how to forage for food in the dam, and protect them if a snake came along in the water.
"Schools are the same," says Kobus van Wyk, head of e-learning at Mustek. “If you give all the kids iPads, the teacher can be like a mother hen: someone who knows to teach with her voice and a blackboard, but not with technology. Someone who cannot protect the learners from sexting or cyber-bullying or pornography, a teacher who does not yet know how to feed for knowledge using a computer.
"Giving learners technology, without teachers ready to direct them, has minimal benefit."
Kids are wired for learning and are adventurous, while older people easily feel threatened by technology, says Brutus Malada, researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue.
"Older people use their cellphones to receive messages and make a call, while kids use Facebook and MXit on their phones. We need to adapt such technologies for innovative teaching, but these do not replace teachers.
"In teaching, there is supposed to be a direct interaction between the teacher and learner," continues Malada. "There are so many things that come into play. How the teacher engages the learner, understands each as a person, understands their situation. When you teach a child, you need to give examples familiar to their environment."
Despite the array of technology available, an excellent teacher needs very little to inspire children and guide them through new concepts.
"Teaching can be done without technology," continues Van Wyk. "However, if teachers lack ability, technology can help them. Technology remains a tool that needs to be embedded into the education system.
“If the Greek philosopher Plato was alive today, he would feel very comfortable in a modern classroom, because teaching is still about the teacher talking, talking, talking.
"But some countries are making progress in teaching. In Australia, the ratio is one computer at school for four children. In Africa, I think the cellphone will be a major teaching device, because many children already have one."
Education time warp
Mobile devices in the classroom can look like immense progress. But maybe that is because the national education system in general is so badly behind in terms of technology. "iPads are so old in other environments," says Anele Davids, head of teacher training at Sci-Bono Science Centre in Johannesburg.
"Everywhere else, a job comes with a computer, and it's just one of the tools you use. But in education, that's not the case. You cannot send e-mail. It's a structural problem within the education system."
As an example, a teacher already trained to use computers to create lesson plans may have a huge challenge convincing his Head of Department that the file is 'in the computer' instead of the black lever-arch files his manager prefers.
Moreover, technology needs both embedding and support in the education system. Any small business with 25 or more computers will have some form of technical desktop assistance, says Van Wyk. But the education system does not define posts for technical support in schools with technology. Such schools use governing board funds to get the support they need.
The Khanya Project for the Western Cape education department provides one example of how teacher training could be rolled out. The project, which Van Wyk ran from 2001 to 2011, trained 27 000 teachers in 1 340 schools in maths, science and English. The programme reached 900 000 learners and deployed 50 000 computers in schools.
The teachers were trained in three phases. First, they learnt how to use the computer as a personal productivity tool, from specialised computer literacy trainers. From then on, facilitators paid weekly visits to the teachers to show them how to use the computer in the classroom, and in the final phase, teachers learnt how to guide learners to find knowledge themselves.
The project provided technical support as well as ongoing teacher training and support after the first three phases to ensure technology is used properly. "Teach the teachers first,” says Van Wyk. “This takes at least three to five years, but it is the heart of any education project's sustainability.”
Teacher, know thyself
Even in a school with plentiful resources, personal resistance to changing the way one teaches can hold teachers back from incorporating technology into their classrooms. A classical attitude to teaching expects learners to sit still, keep quiet and a look as if they are paying attention.
"As teachers we tend to think that we are the only reservoir of knowledge," says Davids. "Often, when you interact with teachers and you want to introduce technology, the concern usually is that it will be disruptive in the classroom, it will affect order, kids will not be listening, maybe they will just be on Facebook. There's also a fear of technology, of not knowing."
In response, Davids trains teachers on how to use Internet banking via their mobile phones. He says it is extremely useful to convince teachers that technology can actually save them both hassle and time: instead of standing in a bank queue on a school day for their salaries, they can do what they need using their phones. The Gauteng Department of Education contracted Sci-Bono to train teachers at schools where fewer than 80% of the Grade 12 learners passed their National Certificate exams. Training started in 2009, and in 2011, the target was training 14 000 teachers.
Of these, 6 500 were Grade 1, 2 and 3 teachers trained in numeracy. For Grades 4 through 9, 5 000 teachers were trained in maths, natural sciences and technology. For grades 10, 11 and 12, Sci-Bono trained 2 500 teachers in maths, physical and life sciences, and maths literacy.
Another part of the programme trains teachers who teach computer studies. The teachers trained at Sci-Bono are generally between 30 and 50 years old. Teachers first gain some technology literacy using Skype and Internet banking via their phones. Then they learn the basics of Microsoft Office and Internet searching. Finally, they learn how to develop lesson plans using a learning content development system. After that, says Davids, their initiative to learn improves markedly.
The first generation of digital natives is entering South African classrooms as student teachers. In a country with some of the lowest literacy and numeracy rates on the continent, despite having the biggest and most advanced economy, improving the quality of teaching is paramount.
"Learners and teachers at a school represent a massive investment in the country's economy," says Sci-Bono's Davids. "But in SA, we don't treat it that way."
Technology still waits to be incorporated into school learners' curricula, as well as those for future teachers. Enterprising teachers need the support of their principals. Principals need support from the Department of Education.
Another problem is that too few want to teach. South Africa needs 25 000 new teachers a year, says a 2011 study by the Centre for Development Enterprise, based on a learner-teacher ratio of 35 to 40. However, in 2010, only about 40% of this demand was met by 9 398 new teachers who joined the education system. Even government's teachers' bursary scheme has not found many takers.
"The teaching profession has lost credibility," says Malada. "People teach as a last resort. The Fundza uluShaka (Teaching the nation) bursary scheme has not attracted students as planned. As a society, we need to restore the teaching profession's reputation, so a young person will want to become a teacher."
Meanwhile, teachers employed at schools are often not in their classrooms, and their managers, the school principals, often do not have the expertise to run multimillion-rand organisations, says Davids.
"The learners we can reach as a company are a drop in the ocean," says Sibusiso Buthelezi, GM of BEE compliance and execution at Dimension Data, and manager of the company's e-learning programme. "But it is a drop that makes a difference. My appeal to other corporates is to work together to build a better society."
"Technology in schools doesn't have a good success record. Failure is mainly caused by providing technology, coming back six months later, and finding it not being used, due to lack of support," adds Van Wyk. "Lack of support - curriculum, teacher and technical support - is a greater barrier to e-learning in SA than a lack of money."
If we treat education as the true emergency it is, surely teachers will start catching up to their precocious charges. Just maybe, they will then again be trusted guides to young minds hungry for a better life.