South Africa says it is pushing ahead to grasp the many opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution. President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a commission of experts to explore what this fusing of the physical, digital and biological worlds, driven by technology, will mean for the country.
One of the areas in which technology is already playing a major role is the school system with some South African schools having already embraced it. President Ramaphosa announced in his 2019 state of the nation address that tablets would be rolled out to all South African schools. There’s also been extensive research in recent years into the potential role of electronic and mobile learning in the country’s schools.
But are all South Africa’s public schools ready for this shift? As an academic whose research focuses on educational technology, I would suggest that five important factors must be considered before the answer is a resounding yes.
Of course, schools in the country are not homogeneous. But, broadly speaking, infrastructure, ongoing teacher training and support, appropriate localised content, technical support and safety and security must all be prioritised so that educational technology actually does what it’s supposed to: enhances teaching and learning.
The first important area is infrastructure.
Schools need technical infrastructure to support both online and offline access to digital resources. That physical infrastructure needs to managed and properly maintained. For this, proper planning is needed: hardware tends to be the last priority for schools when they have many other financial needs. A sustainable financial plan for hardware maintenance is crucial in the introduction of any technology in schools.
Data costs are another major concern. Software, related applications and learning content need to be available offline so that pupils can keep working beyond the school premises.
The second area that needs attention is teacher training and support. This is not a once off process – it must be continuous. But as it stands, many of the teachers in the education system received very few or no technology infused learning experiences while they were studying.
And, crucially, introducing more educational technology is about more than the addition of a piece of hardware or some software. It also means introducing novel approaches to teaching and learning. Universities that train teachers need to be cognisant of this.
In my own work with the Peo Ya Phetogo Foundation, a non profit organisation aimed at empowering teachers with computer and digital literacy skills, my colleagues and I have learned that teachers need local communities of practice where people work together and learn from each other. This can support their journey of transition from older teaching materials to modern technology. There is also extensive South African research which reflects this issue.
Then there’s localised content. There’s already a lot of local learning software in South Africa but a lot of this is in English. Most South African pupils don’t speak English as their first language, and have to battle with translating difficult concepts into their native language to try and understand what’s being taught. This is made even tougher when they are also learning new platforms and methods, like digital education tools.
Content and education technology developers need to provide adaptable systems which consider the context of use, the culture of use as well as language of use. The design process needs to follow a co-design process which also involves teachers. After all, a potential mobile learning user in South Africa can be some non-English speaker, accessing the mobile learning content in a cattle kraal in a village.
More support and security
The fourth area is technical support. Technology introduction in schools needs ongoing “help desk” support. This task is often left to Computer Applications Technology or Computing subject teachers. These teachers become burdened: they are seen as the the all round computing experts, expected to always be able to handle help desk questions.
My colleagues and I have heard this often in our teacher workshops – these teachers’ colleagues also expect them to keep and remember their passwords on their behalf. Schools in urban, peri-urban and rural schools will need dedicated technical support services which teachers will be able to rely on when facing any technical difficulties.
Finally, there’s safety and security. The use of high-end technology within and beyond schools not only affects teachers and learners but also the affects communities in which the schools are based. In a highly unequal society, crime becomes a challenge for schools, teachers and learners who have to make use of such technologies. Any introduction of technology must be accompanied by a sustainable security plan.
This is not to say that technology doesn’t belong in schools. On the contrary, the renewed focus on introducing technology to schools should be celebrated. But it also requires a review of South Africa’s existing technology in education policies and a sustainable plan to ensure that no child is deprived of a skill that is no longer a luxury.
Mmaki Jantjies Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape, University of the Western Cape
What South Africa’s teachers brought to the virtual classroom during COVID-19
Before the pandemic, many teachers in the country had not received substantive formal technology training, either to support blended teaching and learning or to fully apply online learning. The decision by the Ministry of Basic Education to shut down schools in response to the pandemic forced teachers to adapt and innovate to ensure that learning continued despite the challenges faced.
South African schools are clustered into quintiles ranging from one to five. This was done to ensure an equal and fair distribution of resources across schools. Schools in the lower quintiles are often based in under-served communities where resources are limited, while quintile five schools are well resourced. This approach was introduced to address past inequities which affected schools. Regional variances, therefore, exist in terms of access to computer labs and related computing resources.
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The Basic Education Department created a COVID-19 guide for teachers addressing aspects of health as well as potential resources that they could use when teaching from home. This is how teachers across South African schools have responded to COVID-19:
- Having little to no previous experience, they have had to adapt to online learning platforms while learning how to use learning management systems during the pandemic.
- To keep supporting learners, the teachers used online teaching resources and conducted one-on-one consultations using platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp and Google messaging services that allow video calls.
- The WhatsApp messaging service has been repurposed for learning. Schools have created WhatsApp learning groups to take pictures of book pages and send them to parents, while learners receiving teaching material through their smartphone apps have enabled classes to continue. The Department of Basic Education also launched a complementary WhatsApp portal to provide teachers with information about COVID-19 and educational material.
- In some instances, teachers pasted pieces of paper on the wall and used them as “whiteboards”, then recorded themselves on their phones to teach learners from these whiteboards. They shared the videos with parents via the WhatsApp groups. Schools have also used platforms such as Facebook to share information and send learning material to parents.
Radio and television have also been used by teachers to supplement learning. Prior to the pandemic, these had lost popularity as key learning media. But, teachers now recognise that since most learners have access to them, they should be incorporated into remote learning material. The Basic Education Department also recognised that pupils were more likely to be able to access radio and television compared to any other technological medium of learning.
While South Africa’s focus prior to the pandemic was on digital transformation in the fourth industrial revolution, teachers have emerged as key players in digital skills development and sustainability.
Beyond COVID-19, a lesson for South Africa and many other countries is the role that teachers play in co-creating a digital learning environment. For technology to be adopted in schools, the school leadership and teachers play an important role in the sustainable use of any educational technology.
Indeed, teachers are best placed to adapt lesson plans to suit the child’s home environment. For some, online devices may be readily accessible, while others will need to receive printed materials or tune into radio or TV lessons. Having a range of options is critical in a country like South Africa, where there are enormous variations in income and access to resources.
How technology is introduced also makes a difference. I’ve been working with a number of schools to help provide digital skills that can be used in science, technology, engineering and maths lessons. What we have found is that giving teachers and school principals ownership of the process is vital in the technology adoption process.
To this end, teachers should be encouraged to support each other through the learning journey. Champions of technology in schools need to be recognised and rewarded in order that technology adoption is not seen as just an additional task or burden for teachers.
The education system needs to build e-learning ecosystems involving national and provincial governments, schools, teachers, parents, telecommunications companies, NGOs and the private sector. Most importantly, teachers need to be supported and trained in digital education. These interventions should look beyond the pandemic as critical components enabling learning with technology in and beyond the classroom.
Education professionals and researchers should listen to teachers, work with them and reward them for innovating with technology in schools. Teachers still hold the key to children’s learning and no keyboard or screen can replace their role.
Mmaki Jantjies Associate professor in Information Systems, University of the Western Cape
How South Africa can prepare for a data-driven education system
There are significant disparities in South Africa’s education system. Schools are divided into quintiles, from one to five; the poorest, in quintile one, struggle enormously with a lack of resources and support. They also tend to have poorer educational outcomes. That has a direct effect on university admission and outcomes.
One of the government’s attempts to address these inequalities is through technology. This began as early as 2003 with the Draft White Paper on e-Education. These and similar policies aim to resource more marginalised schools, universities and colleges with digital tools. This, in a bid to “leapfrog” access to interactive learning content and improved administrative capabilities. COVID-19 lockdowns have made this approach “imperative … now the only thing we can do”, according to the country’s Ministry of Basic Education.
More and more, data and data-driven tools are emerging as a central feature of this digital response. Developers of these technologies promise a new level of insight and automation that mimics human intelligence. They argue this will bring greater efficiency and effectiveness to both teaching and learning as well as to administrative processes. They suggest that performance dashboards, automated assessments, chat bots and adaptive learning technologies can mitigate many of the challenges faced by the country’s teachers, lecturers, district managers and university administrators.
There’s a growing global evidence base to support these sorts of approaches. For instance, teachers in under-resourced schools with large classes could use technology to gather individualised data. With this they could develop more personalised learning experiences for pupils based on their strengths and weaknesses.
Data is the backbone of these tools. The growth of machine learning and other intelligent applications has been spurred by the increased collection and availability of data. Such data underlies the kinds of adaptive applications and emerging technologies that are proposed for use in the education system.
We collaborated on a guide that examines how South Africa can ensure its data policy and governance takes some of the lessons and concerns from previous education technology implementations into account. It also considers the practical steps needed for this to happen. The guide is part of a series curated by the Policy Action Network (PAN), a project by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).
Here are some of the things a data policy for South Africa’s education system should consider.
Experience shows that simply providing technology to teachers or students has a limited effect on educational outcomes. The benefits of online, assisted learning and behavioural interventions also vary depending on how technology is used, and in what context. This is highlighted in working papers that review the effectiveness of educational technology globally and in developing countries.
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A key issue centres on how data is collected, shared and used. It’s crucial that personal information should be kept private. Education institutions need to comply with the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), which comes into force effect later in 2021.
Another question concerns sharing and reuse across the wider spectrum of education data. This ranges from the content of books and journal articles to administrative data, such as student enrolments and graduations. Sharing or publishing this data in a responsible way can stimulate the development of many creative and useful applications. But data sharing intersects with evolving copyright laws and debates around ownership and reuse. These will have implications for data-driven innovation in the sector.
A third point is to reckon with well-documented concerns about bias embedded in existing data which is being used in decision-support applications. If this isn’t dealt with, data-driven applications may reinforce historical prejudices and practices related to education.
A holistic policy response
South Africa doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to deal with these issues. Other countries are exploring policy approaches that could guide or inform its approach. For instance, a governmental think tank in India developed a national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy. This points to various examples of how the country can use AI technologies to support education. Importantly, however, it also suggests replicating the UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to ensure ethical and safe use of data.
Echoing this approach, a report commissioned by the Australian National Department of Education, outlines how critical it is that the application of AI should accord with human rights.
There are also existing resources in South Africa. These include the recently released 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) report and recommendations from a 2019 Department of Higher Education and Training discussion on 4IR implications. POPIA and related legislation provide guidance on how data should be published, used and handled, including for automated decision-making.
These resources recognise that a variety of underlying issues need to be addressed to benefit from data-driven innovation, such as connectivity and processing capacity. AI-powered systems are resource-intensive. Any introduction of data services will require a supportive digital infrastructure plan which addresses performance, security and inclusion.
Another priority is skills. There are existing guidelines to support teachers using digital technologies. These guidelines recognise the interdependent nature of content, ways of teaching, and technology. Additional training and updated guidelines will be needed to address the role and use of data, probably starting with a broad data literacy programme.
But more will be needed. Technology policy, adoption and spending in education often involves more than one ministry. This makes early engagement and communication important.
Specific policies will have to be updated or developed to guide the use and implementation of data, machine learning and the wider spectrum of automated decision-making tools. These should govern how data is collected, handled and shared to balance relevant transparency, privacy and ethics principles and laws. Educators, policymakers, researchers and innovators in the sector all need to get involved.
- Mmaki Jantjies Associate Professor in Information Systems, University of the Western Cape
- Paul Plantinga Research Specialist: Digital Strategies and Engagement, Human Sciences Research Council
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