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Flipping the script on rural schooling through wonder-filled learning

Rural-educated children are not as switched-on as city kids, right? Wrong! A non-profit operating in Mpumalanga is flipping that script, giving children and young adults around the Kruger National Park the chance to charge into a 4IR world, armed with the knowledge of coding, robotics, digital literacy – and hope for a brighter future.

In August 2022, Good Work Foundation (GWF) celebrated 10 eventful years of “challenging how we learn, what we learn, and who has access to learning”. Because let’s face it, inequality in education is a problem that’s not going away.

Since 2012, GWF has been reimagining education to bring a sense of discovery and wonder back into the classroom – inspiring young people in an area where the youth unemployment rate soars to 65% and higher.

GWF’s Hazyview Digital Learning Centre was born out of a desire to provide local children and adults with computer and English literacy skills in a state-of-the-art digital environment. Located in Shabalala village, near Hazyview, it’s been instrumental in changing people’s lives for the better – and has mushroomed into five satellite digital learning campuses in rural Mpumalanga (and one in the Free State).

And to think it all started in an old banana packing shed …

Roots to fruits Hazyview tree of knowledge

From banana shed to digital hub

Like most great ideas, it started with a conversation. Kate Groch, a school teacher; Dave and Shan Varty, the founders of Londolozi Private Game Reserve; and Pastor Solly Mhaule of the Hosanna Church in Hazyview put their heads together. The pastor was keen to build a private high school on a plot adjacent to the game reserve, using a disused banana shed that had been donated to his church.

But, says Kate, “The moment you build a school, you limit yourself to numbers and what the content of that school can be.” So, why not rather create a digital learning hub in the middle of a number of local schools that everyone will have access to? Nothing is impossible if you marry dreams with determination!

The spark was ignited when Kate and Dave sat around a campfire at Londolozi with Mardia van der Walt-Korsten, the South African chairperson of T-Systems at the time. They pitched the idea to her, and she helped secure funding to the tune of R6.1-million over two years to establish the Hazyview Digital Learning Centre – bringing to life a long-held vision to reinvent rural education.

“The way it works is that it is a hub and not a school, and it engages with 10 to 15 schools in the geographic region around the hub,” says Dave. This has grown to more than 32 schools since 2012.

“Learning started becoming entertaining for the children; that’s why Kate speaks of the ‘wonderment of education’. The kids travel from their neighbouring schools and are introduced to iPads and gamified education, and to the joy of learning. You can hardly stop them from coming to the hub, time and time again – it’s like going to the movies for them!”

For two hours a week, schoolchildren would visit the hub to supplement their school curriculum with digital skills – as though they were on a school outing. It was fun for them – being able to play with cool tech they didn’t have access to at school or at home.

“Even though we had big numbers coming in, each child sat at a table of 10 with an instructor so that close attention could be given to them while the teaching continued,” says Dave.

“That became our pay-it-forward model. We then built the different hubs according to the exact model – and before we knew it, we found ourselves with 12 000 children a week, accelerating their learning.”

Meccano mania Building better futures

Growing in leaps and bounds

Ten years on and several local and international awards later, the Hazyview-based future-learning facility now has a number of progressive stages of education:

  • The Open Learning Academy focuses on English, Maths and digital literacy; conservation; creative arts coding and robotics; responsible citizenship; and life skills for rural schoolchildren
  • The Bridging Year Academy is a year-long course that focuses on bridging the digital gap for young rural adults with modules such as International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL), Ready to Work, Employability, Career Interest Profiling, and English for Work
  • The IT Academy provides the Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority (MICT SETA)-certified year-long CompTia N+, S+, and A+ course, where students qualify as IT support engineers
  • The Travel and Tourism Academy offers either the Conservation or Hospitality programme, both Culture, Arts, Tourism, Hospitality and Sports SETA (Cathsseta)-certified, and aimed at getting graduates jobs within the tourism industry right on their doorstep in Mpumalanga
  • The Facilitator Academy trains graduates to become facilitators of GWF’s programmes (or in any education environment)
English and digital skills Bridging Academy

Bringing hope and jobs to rural bright sparks

Results matter – and this reimagined education model is yielding fruit in the form of jobs, successful university applications and improved school marks. Several graduates have been placed at game reserves, tourism establishments and businesses around Mpumalanga, encouraging young people to stay and contribute to the provincial economy instead of heading to the major centres.

All 14 of the campus’s class of 2021 Hospitality programme graduates have found placement in paid internships around Sabi Sands and Hazyview. A total of 147 (72%) of the foundation’s employees are alumni of its programmes; 24 graduates are employed by VillageUp, GWF’s own social enterprise offering business process outsourcing (BPO) services.

GWF’s “wisdom counsel”, Maureen Groch(Gogo Mo), says that this model of education has played an important role in changing young people’s lives for the better in rural Mpumalanga.

“The one thing that always worried me in our country is that a big percentage of our young rural people were almost brought up to believe they aren't as good [as their urban counterparts]. But we have all come to see that it does not matter where you are born – the potential is in each and every individual.”

Adds Kate, “For me as a teacher, it’s about unlocking the curiosity and excitement of learning by giving the agency of learning back to the child. Humans are, by nature, curious and wired to learn. We want to give these children the opportunity to turn on that curiosity again, stoke the fire and never put the lid back on it again.”

Here’s to another 10 years – and beyond – of reawakening wonder and hope through cool gadgets, gizmos and next-level Lego!

Hazyview campus at sunset

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