Digital education in South Africa

What’s going on in schools?

Despite much talk from government about the needs to ready learners for the the 21st Century workplace, when it comes to state-funded schools, the South African reality is one characterised by a lack of access to technical support, unreliable internet connectivity, security concerns and limited funding for teacher training which has been slowing down the broader uptake of digital education. Despite these infrastructural issues, there is a growing interest in digital education in South Africa, often spearheaded by politicians eager to make electoral gains. On the ground, these issues are being tackled by a combination of government initiatives supported by tech companies – such as Samsung, Intel and Microsoft –  and NGO-led interventions. This often results in a haphazard implementation of digital education and a proliferation of pilot projects. 

Two of the provincial Departments of Education in South Africa, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) and Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), are moving forward with ambitious digital education plans. 

The WCED has a strategic ‘E-vision’ for the integration of digital content and tools into teaching and learning in the province, as part of a larger provincial move towards utilising digital more broadly in government. They plan to provide wireless infrastructure to all schools by 2019 and have already procured 30,000 mobile devices for use in the classroom. The plan includes installing more than 7 300 smart classrooms by 2019. WCED have installed more than 5 300 smart classrooms to date. Smart classrooms include interactive whiteboards, laptops, data projectors, and eBeams, that project images from physical objects. There are 16 model schools in the province that will provide leadership and will test approaches to e-learning in schools and 340 enhanced schools that will use ICT extensively in the classroom.

The GDE launched their Paperless Classroom Initiative last year, with the aim to integrate ICT In the classroom by 2019. The project is focused on 377 schools in township areas of the province with approximately 3 800 classrooms refurbished and smartboards installed, 6 000 teachers trained in the use of ICT in the classroom (and supplied with laptops) and 64 000 tablets distributed to learners. The initial focus is on FET level with the aim to eventually phase out print textbooks in favour of e-books, and with other paper-based administration functions replaced by an online school/learner management system. All schools participating in the project receive smartboards for the classrooms, laptops for the teachers and tablets for the learners. Content is preloaded to the devices, allowing their usage in an offline environment. That said, fibre will be rolled out to all schools in the coming years so connectivity will not be an issue. Recently, a call for submission of approved digital material (i.e. approved on the National Print Catalogue by the Department of Basic Education) was made, for inclusion on a provincial catalogue for the procurement of e-books for the 2018 school year.

Critics of these initiatives point out that the Department of Basic Education has still to solve issues around literacy and numeracy, poorly trained teachers and physical infrastructure in schools. However, learners will need to be digitally literate in order to have any chance of competing in the job market in coming years and it will be interesting to see if learning with digital creates learners who can learn digitally and independently, which potentially is the one 21st century skill that is really needed.

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