Which are the technologies that are changing our classrooms for the better, and which are overhyped?
In the first of his two State of the Nation Addresses this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa laid out an ambitious vision for educational technology in South Africa. Every child should have access to digital textbooks on a tablet device by 2025, he said.
History suggests that these kinds of promises have a tendency to come back to haunt politicians. Kenya, for example, has just ditched its ambitious one-laptop-per-child policy. Closer to home, Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi once promised all public schools in the province would be paperless by 2019 (they aren’t).
Yet the temptation to believe that technology can fix our broken education system and prepare students for life in the Fourth Industrial Revolution remains. But what is it that schools really want from technology? And what do those who have experience in the education sector think are the wise investments that should be made?
Changing the system
Participants in the discussion include technologists, vendors, educators, school heads, researchers and curriculum designers, all well versed in the history of IT in education. While they represent many different viewpoints, everyone agrees that education in South Africa needs to change at a fundamental level if it is to deliver equality of opportunity for all, and an educated citizenry that will keep the country competitive in the 21st century. They also agree that technology doesn’t hold all the answers, and ‘one tablet/laptop-per-child’ visions are problematic.
“The biggest problem is that there aren’t enough spaces in schools for the number of children,” says Steve Monty, CEO and co-founder of Information Capital. “Schools are increasing the number of children in classrooms, and if you look at them, with desks piled everywhere, it’s just ridiculous. We have to think about that problem – some schools might be ready for robotics and coding, but others are just struggling for space.”
“It’s not just about putting in more desks, though,” adds Michelle Lissoos, MD of Think Ahead and iSchool Africa. “It’s about what kind of education our children need, and what innovative, scalable models we can look at within our socio-economic context. We’re looking at a lot of plasters that we’re putting on our current system, as opposed to looking at how technology can produce different outcomes. Just putting tablets into schools, or distributing digital textbooks, doesn’t change anything. We know the skills our children will need, so how do we get them at scale? That’s the challenge.”
“We have these discussions with teachers, government and e-learning advisors in the private and public sector,” says Elsabe Hart, learning delivery specialist at Microsoft. “Technology in schools isn’t going to change the socio-economic makeup of the country. We need to focus a lot of our thinking of 4IR and skills around what teachers need before we start pushing it onto the students. A lot of teachers don’t have the skills we’re expecting students to have. They don’t know how to use IT to collaborate, they don’t have critical thinking skills for real-world problem-solving. We need to work with universities to better prepare teachers for the environments they’re going to enter.
“There will be technology in classrooms, whether it’s just WiFi and a projector, or every student with a laptop. Students will not be prepared for the workplace if they never touch technology at school.”
Riaan Graham, Ruckus Networks’ sales director for Sub-Saharan Africa
We have to think about that problem – some schools might be ready for robotics and coding, but others are just struggling for space.Steve Monty, Information Capital
Graham suggests that if these problems aren’t addressed within 10 years, South Africa will be left behind in the digital economy. But, he points out, the first challenge is basic infrastructure. “Why do you want to put in a WiFi network or a smart screen if you don’t have water or toilets? You’ve got to start with the basics: how do you get children into school and keep them in school?”
Technology solutions also have to be appropriate, says Epson South Africa’s visual imaging account manager, Timothy Wilson. “A lot of the time, it’s about finding the right software solution and getting teachers to use it. Often, they’re scared of it.”
Wilson uses the example of a school in Zimbabwe in which he’d installed interactive projector screens that weren’t being used. “We found part of the problem was that teachers were used to using blackboards, so we took the software and instead of using a white background, we changed it to black, and it completely changed the teachers’ perspective.”
“The problem in education,” suggests Ross Hill, executive head of Curro’s new low-cost, tech-focused Foreshore school in Cape Town. “It’s not that kids aren’t learning technology skills. It’s that they aren’t learning at all. That’s not just because it’s an old curriculum, it’s because implementation is rubbish. I’ve seen so many solutions where people spend millions of rands or dollars, and people get rich, training teachers, but they’re still implementing the same things.”
The opportunity, Hill continues, is to start from scratch. “Change the role of the classroom space and the role of the adult in the space, and look at how we actually get kids to learn.”
Dr Nicholaas Matthee is an instructional designer and academic researcher at e-learning provider ITSI. “The technology that excites teachers right now is a blackboard and a piece of chalk,” he says. “Even where educators have access to technologies, they don’t use them for teaching. There’s a micro-economy in the classroom in which there’s a limited amount of resources that can be used, and that resource is being spent on hitting the current performance metrics around pass rates.
Technology in schools isn’t going to change the socio-economic makeup of the country.Elsabe Hart, Microsoft
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution depends much more on mastery of skills than achieving 100% in maths or another subject. The disconnect is that using technology in the classroom takes time and effort and that means the top-level results might go down for a while, and that’s not acceptable. I saw some teachers putting transparencies that are brown with age into fancy new visualisers, which shows there’s disconnect between what we think we’re supplying and how it’s used.”
Matthee references John Hattie’s ground-breaking `Visible Learning for Teachers’ study of factors that lead to pupil performance, which shows that despite everything, teacher efficacy is still the most important thing to get right. That’s often missed in product design.
“Technology companies have their main products, but they aren’t always well versed in theories of learning,” he says.
IT can make teachers more effective, says Oliver Dick, blended learning lead at SPARK Schools, if they’re able to use it to see quickly which students need what support. That means access to data and analytics. The problem is that expectations and salaries for teachers in South Africa are low, and right now, they’re being used more for experimentation rather than implementing proven educational strategies.
“You can collect all the data you want, but most of it is junk. Teachers need to know where they’re falling short and where students are falling short,” Dick says. “That needs to be transparent and shared with parents.”
Most educational software is just teaching kids to ‘click and drag’, he continues. “It’s all very well saying a child got 100% in this reading application. But where’s the evidence that it will help them be a better writer or create a work of art? The same with many maths applications. Are they transferring learning?”
In any discussion around teaching, the subject of online learning and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will come up.
“Is the classroom even the place where you want to learn today?” asks Citrix’ regional director for Sub-Saharan Africa, Brendan McAravey. “A lot of universities are closing down their MBA programmes because they have more students online than enrolled in the college. We talk about work as not being a place, it’s something you do. Education isn’t a school, it’s what you learn.”
The difficulty, says Jade Duckitt, creative director at games developer Sea Monster, is creating a desire to learn and an awareness of what’s out there. “If you’re so far removed from the reality of what’s available, how do you bridge that gap? How do you help someone visualise the benefits of getting connected to a space where you can learn? Usually it’s an inspiring teacher who can give you one-on-one attention, but when schools are so full, that’s a challenge.”
Where children do have access to technology, says Microsoft’s Hart, they’re often familiar with it from a consumer point of view, but are unaware of the ability to use it as a learning tool. Microsoft’s Minecraft for Education is one example of an attempt to bridge this gap, she says.
Think Ahead’s Lissoos points out that the discussion around tech in education is very mature, and there’s evidence for what works and what doesn’t. But scalable strategies still aren’t being developed at a national level.
Education isn’t a school, it’s what you learn.Brendan McAravey, Citrix
A potential cause, suggests Citrix’ McAravey, is that there’s not enough collaboration in the sector and vendors are incentivised to sell their own solutions.
“The technology is there, the students are there – and they’re technology-savvy – and the CSI programmes are there to get technology into students’ hands,” agrees Jaco Oosthuizen, business unit manager at Rectron. “The big disconnect is still that corporates are using that to tick the CSI box. We need all the multinational brands to come together and figure out how to implement in the South African context.”
There’s a long way to go before that happens, but if everyone in education shared the enthusiasm and commitment of the roundtable participants, we’d get there a lot faster.