3 Careful Questions on what Digital Education Means for South Africa

From the start of the 2015 schoolyear, Grade 9 pupils in seven schools in Tembisa, Johannesburg, will no longer rely on notebooks and pens. Instead, and in the spirit of new innovations in technology, these pupils will work entirely on tablet computers.

Cyril Ramaphosa

Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa (right) with Minister for Basic Education (second from right) at the Tembisa paperless education launch.

Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi addressed media at the school on Tuesday, a day before the official launch of the project: “Tomorrow morning in this school, we will be burying the duster, we will be burying the chalk,” he said. He added that the department of education hopes to roll the project out to all Gauteng township and rural schools by the end of the 2017/2018 financial year at an estimated cost of R17bn.

As an organisation that is all about using digital to change the lives of an entire generation, the team at Good Work Foundation were extremely excited to read about this initiative. This is a proactive step by the South African government to use 21st century tools to address education challenges.

What will be interesting though (for all education technology role-players) is the interpretation of “blended learning” in the classroom as we move forward.

It is not enough to simply change the channel of information, such as from textbook on paper, to identical textbook on tablet. We have to change the style of learning too.

Here are three important questions:

  • How do we “teach” young people to use technology to teach and empower themselves?
  • How do we use technology to create self-organised and collaborative learning environments?
  • How do we use technology to create a scenario where the “lesson” or “lecture” happens at home, so that in the classroom we can get right into the “problem-solving” and “engagement”?

Point 3, in particular, presents an interesting challenge. Have we started yet, in our national universities, to create digital facilitators? Or are we still training “old-fashioned” teachers? In a country that already has a shortage of teachers, will a three-year degree still be necessary, or is there a more innovative approach, one that re-invents the entire concept of “classroom” and “teacher”? Lastly, will our teachers be prepared for students who no longer have defined learning boundaries? How do you cope with students who know more than you do, who are learning at different speeds, who are expressing the full force of their youthful curiosity.

We need to go fast. But we also need to think carefully about support and planning.

What are your thoughts?