Sizwe IT Group powers real change for quality and equitable education
Building the digital highway in South Africa is not without challenges, particularly across our education system in both urban and rural schools, where digital offerings must first adapt to traverse our humble dirt roads. The bridge between technology and education requires not only clever innovation, but serious consideration of the everyday realities facing our educators and learners.
There are very real barriers in South Africa to adopting technology in education, including infrastructure, facilities, space, structural and equipment costs, sustainable power, connectivity, cost of data and the delivery of appropriate content.
Reverend Dr Vukile Mehana, Chairman of the Sizwe IT Group, one of South Africa's leading integrated ICT solutions providers, is determined that the relationship between technology and education will be bridged when technology supports what is most pressing for educators and learners - the quality achievement of primary and secondary education.
"It is of critical concern to me, that despite the continued efforts of those working to solve the South African educational challenge, a large percentage of children starting Grade 1 never obtain their National Senior Certificate," he said.
With this in mind, Sizwe IT Group, together with strategic IT and e-learning partners, created a 28-square meter solar powered, eco-friendly mobile Green Smart Centre designed to power real change for quality and equitable education.
The Green Smart Centre, which is 24 square metres in size and constructed like a shipping container, is fitted with nine rows of steel tables and benches accommodating 27 learners, seating three learners per bench.
The centre boasts 27 Fujitsu eLux thin clients which connect via an Ethernet network to a Fujitsu server.
All equipment and software has been uniquely developed for the Green Smart Centre. For example, the thin clients are very robust and able to withstand temperatures of minus 30 degrees and above 30 degrees.
The server is installed on a Windows 2016 operating system and the thin clients are open RDP sessions to the server through which the learning content is delivered.
"Whereas most e-learning content is cloud-based and limited to strength of connectivity," explains Jos Matthysen, Executive of Managed Services at Sizwe IT Group. "This is an offline facility where all learning content is located on a Linux virtual server which is hosted on the physical Windows server. Learners do not have to access the Internet so there is no need for connectivity. This not only means no data costs, it also means the learners are protected from exposure to inappropriate internet content."
For the educator's laptop, there is an Aruba Wireless access point which provides connectivity to the server and educators can connect remotely to the internet if the Green Smart Centre is in an area with internet access.
The learning content, provided by MyTopDog, one of the largest e-learner suppliers in South Africa, includes interactive audio-visual content, assessments and practice exams for all major subjects from Grade 4 to 12.
The learning content has been specially customised for the Green Smart Centre and provided at substantially reduced rates. It is designed to supplement and support the subjects in the public and private school curricula including the Curriculum Assessments Policy Statements (CAPS), the National Curriculum Statements (NSC) and the Independent Examination Board (IEB). The Cambridge curricula can be made available on request.
An individual monitoring system, built into the programme, allows for adaptive learning to address any learning gaps. The programme accommodates slow or faster learners as each learner can repeat a lesson or progress to the next module at his or her pace and capability levels.
An important benefit for educators is the inclusion of a smart e-learning system with a Parrot interactive touch screen in the front of the class on which the educator can draw and write. All output is mirrored to the 27 thin clients in the class or visa versa, thus allowing for effective two-way communication.
Educators can prepare their lessons on their smart phone, tablet or laptop and then load the content on to the interactive screen. The lessons they present can be directly saved to the server, so that learners can view the lesson whenever they need.
Further support for the educator comes with the Kyocera electronic 'Teacher Assistant'; an innovative solution to setting and marking tests and exams. After the educator has entered the questions, the 'Teacher Assistant' can print the papers, compare and analyse the results, attribute marks and compile a report.
The unique and smart device printer can also print individual payslips and school term reports. These can be accessed by educators and parents respectively, with a private password.
Attendees of the launch can explore the facility and witness the assessment component of the Green Smart Centre content by completing a multiple-choice questionnaire on what they heard in the presentation!
Training of the educators, using the 'train the trainer' methodology, will take place over a couple of weeks, and will be preceded by extensive exposure to Microsoft 10.
"Full training is an important priority," Jos Matthysen emphasises. "I remember when the school where my mother taught was donated its first computer, but with no training or support. My mother, purely because she could type, was made responsible for it. I was in Grade 8 at the time and taught her how to use it! I know the problems caused by lack of training. It is imperative hands-on skills training is provided for the educators."
The Green Smart Centre is a 360-degree educational solution with state of the art and bespoke equipment, hands-on skills training for the educators, trained technicians based nationwide, approved interactive e-learning content and, of course, solar powered!
The temperature in the classroom is regulated by insulated walls and can be supplemented by four oscillating fans and five sliding meshed windows. The power for the server, computer units, power saving LED lighting and fans is generated by the 12 rooftop solar panels with more than sufficient battery power for expansion. The solar panels generate 5KVA while the Green Smart Centre utilises 3KVA. The centre is also mobile and can be conveyed from one school to the next, thus serving the needs of more than one rural school.
Security of equipment is always a concern. The Green Smart Centre is monitored by a security camera both in the classroom and server room, which is fully contained and lockable, and located at the back of the container. The centre has a single point entrance with a welded door. All classroom units such as screens, desks and seating are bolted down and the thin client servers are securely attached and concealed. As the thin clients have no hardware, they have no street value and are therefore unlikely to be stolen. Each learner will be issued with their personal earphones specifically for the audio-visual material.
Reverend Dr Mehana is confident that the centre is safe and secure "but it is also up to the communities to assume guardianship of this facility and protect the containers from vandalism or theft," he said.
The Green Smart Centre is not intended for sale but only for rental.
The rental agreement route allows Sizwe IT Group to provide the hardware maintenance and other support services. The renter has the option of leasing the entire Green Smart Centre or selecting specific equipment or hardware to tailor make the Green Smart Centre to their needs. A larger Green Smart Centre to accommodate 54 learners, can be supplied by converting two Green Smart Centre into one. The hardware, software and equipment can also be used in a brick and mortar set up.
The Green Smart Centre is a secure, state of the art computer Centre - a fully self-sustainable and scalable solution for South African education - providing educators, learners, their families and communities with the imperative support and facilities needed to power real change for future generations and make a long-term impact on our country's social and economic growth.