Tech intervention for rural schools

Read time 7min 30sec
The Cofimvaba Schools District Technology Project is the initiative of science and technology minister, Derek Hanekom.
The Cofimvaba Schools District Technology Project is the initiative of science and technology minister, Derek Hanekom.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST), together with the Department of Basic Education and the Eastern Cape Department of Education, has launched the Cofimvaba Schools District Technology Project.

The initiative seeks to use technology-led innovations to improve teaching and learning in rural schools.

The project will initially focus on 26 schools in the Nciba Circuit and the results of the pilot will be used to form a roadmap for potential national rollout.

Minister of science and technology, Derek Hanekom, yesterday visited Arthur Mfebe Senior Secondary School, in Cofimvaba near Queenstown, along with deputy minister of basic education, Enver Surty, and MEC for basic education and training in the Eastern Cape, Mandla Makupula, to see the progress of the project.

The school is the first to pilot a number of technological interventions, including tablets for teachers, secure charging stations, a WiFi network, and the establishment of an experimental farm for the pupils and broader community.

The DST has allocated R6 million to the pilot project, while the Eastern Cape Provincial Education Department has invested a further R500 000 towards the experimental farm. The pilot at Arthur Mfebe Senior Secondary School will form the blueprint for replication throughout the district in 2013.

"It is intended that by continuing work with a wide range of public, private and non-profit organisations, it will enable a project plan to be concretised for rollout beyond 2013, and that sufficient funds will be raised to ensure longer term sustainability and potential for scale-up throughout the Eastern Cape and, ultimately, nationally," says the DST.

Merryl Ford of the CSIR's Meraka Institute shows the deputy minister of basic education, Enver Surty, the Android tablet currently being tested at the pilot school.
Merryl Ford of the CSIR's Meraka Institute shows the deputy minister of basic education, Enver Surty, the Android tablet currently being tested at the pilot school.

Surty said when he was approached by Hanekom to choose a province in which to start the technology project, he did not hesitate to select the Eastern Cape. When Surty then took the proposal to the provincial MEC, Makupula did not hesitate to choose the Cofimvuba district, based on its performance despite the challenges faced by the poverty-stricken area.

The state of education in the Eastern Cape has often been described as a "crisis" and the provincial education department was placed under administration last year following multiple reports of inefficiency and maladministration.

According to Equal Education, in the Eastern Cape there are close to 400 "mud schools" and 66% of all schools in the region have unreliable or no access to water and 40% have unreliable or no access to electricity.

"The Cofimvaba District Schools Technology Project is rooted in the recognition that larger-scale improvements to the education system are not limited to the domain of education departments alone, but require the combined efforts of public and private partners, together with civil society at national, provincial, and at district and circuit level," says the DST.

It adds that the project includes technology interventions in ICT, nutrition, health, water, sanitation and energy.

"The success of our science system is strongly dependent on improved performance at school level. While technology alone will not provide all the answers, one of our challenges is to apply the available knowledge and technologies to support learning and teaching," says Hanekom.

Mobile learning

The ICT intervention at the pilot school is driven by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's (CSIR's) Meraka Institute. The working group has successfully implemented the first phase of the project at Arthur Mfebe, with 16 tablets being distributed to teachers and school management, along with the provision of a content server and development of educational software and electronic textbooks for maths and science (through the NMMU Govan Mbeki Mathematics Unit). Secure charging stations have also been installed (which are essentially lockers with plug points inside them), along with a local WiFi Mesh network, and free SIM cards have been provided by Cell C.

Apart from the ICT interventions, an experimental farm has also been established at the Arthur Mfebe Senior Secondary School.
Apart from the ICT interventions, an experimental farm has also been established at the Arthur Mfebe Senior Secondary School.

Manager of education and mobile learning at the Meraka Institute, Merryl Ford, says the group is seeking the most effective ways of providing digital content on tablets to schools, and what needs to happen in terms of training, content production and the management of the devices.

The tablets currently being tested have a seven-inch display and run the Android OS. The CSIR has developed a customised homepage which has icons for each of the school subjects, and specific applications and content (such as old exam papers and answers and workbooks) related to each of them. According to Ford, the tablets can be remotely wiped and can be configured to send an e-mail with its GPS coordinates in the event of it being stolen.

Ford says if both the teachers and pupils prove they are using the tablets as an effective learning tool, then they will roll them out to all the pupils at the school. Portable charging kits are also being investigated. According to Ford, the CSIR is still exploring and testing different tablet models and once this process is complete, it will be able to make a recommendation for the specifications of the devices for broader rollout.

"One needs to understand that a tablet is just a tool in the hands of learners and teachers. There still needs to be good teaching and good management, otherwise we will just end up in a situation where there is merely bad teaching with tablets. We're not saying technology will solve everything, we're just saying it is one of the tools we can use to solve educational problems.

The prototype for a portable WiFi hotspot that is currently being used at the school to provide Internet access.
The prototype for a portable WiFi hotspot that is currently being used at the school to provide Internet access.

"This is an opportunity to show what rural schools can do if they are given the right opportunities. At CSIR, we like the difficult challenges, and if we can get it right in a rural school environment, we can get it right anywhere," says Ford.

The DST and Meraka are developing a fundraising strategy for the second phase of the project, which will see the rollout of tablets and the necessary infrastructure and training to an additional eight schools in the district in 2013.

Considering the accumulative cost of textbooks and the recent problems with textbook delivery, Hanekom commented on the use of tablets, saying: "It's a mindset change that needs to happen here. We need to realise that it will actually be more expensive for us not to do this."

Ford also demonstrated a portable WiFi hotspot prototype that is being used at the Arthur Mfebe school. The system is built into a carry case and can run for four to five hours without being plugged in. The prototype currently costs R5 000, but the costs are expected to be reduced when it is manufactured on a larger scale. Ford says learners from the school are being trained to be the network support team, and managing the tablets on the server, so no additional support is required.

Holistic approach

Apart from the ICT interventions, the DST's project extends to food security and agricultural management. So far a piggery, chicken coop, orchard, nursery and experimental crop farm and drip-irrigation system have been established. This is overseen by a local project steering committee which includes local community leaders and elders, local councillors, district officials and the CSIR.

The DST says: "These interventions are not only in support of the agricultural sciences curriculum of the school, but are also intended to enhance employability and skills competencies development via co-curricular programmes that are aimed at enhancing technical skills, entrepreneurship and contextual knowledge and skills (such as agriculture and tourism)."

The project is also looking into implementing sustainable hybrid technology solutions including solar, wind and biogas digesters where possible. "There is significant potential for South African innovation in respect of developing complementary energy solutions particularly in support of the ICT component of this project," says the DST.

Speaking at the launch event, matric pupil from the Arthur Mfebe school, Sithesihle Mazingi, said the introduction of the tablets at the school was "like suddenly having a maths and science teacher in your pocket. They make studying more fun. As Grade 12s, we are on our way out, but it brings us so much joy to know our brothers and sisters will be benefiting from these new technologies. We must work together to make it a success - not just for us, but for the future generations."

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