Switched On

With the value of e-learning recognised by all parties in SA, ambitious programmes are being introduced throughout the education system

Switched On

In Mrs Carletti’s maths class, there’s no excuse for not being up to date. Even if a learner is sick at home, they can sign in using the free online application Google Classroom. From their bed, they can stream a video clip of the missed lesson, download the relevant worksheets and message the teacher and classmates.

Susan Carletti is one of a growing number of SA educators who have embraced e-learning. The AP (advanced programme) maths teacher at Rondebosch Boys’ High School, Cape Town, has been recording lessons via the interactive whiteboard in her classroom for more than four years. The screencast videos show what’s happening on the whiteboard, supported by audio with the teacher’s explanations.

The occasional tweets from @Mrs_Carletti reflect her enthusiasm for e-learning: ‘Just recorded five lessons so my pupils can be taught by me while I’m away at a conference tomorrow. Got to love technology!’

Feedback from the learners has also been positive, because the pupils can replay maths topics such as hyperbolae, matrix multiplication and compound fractions, if they are unsure or need to revise for an exam.

This type of ‘blended learning’, where traditional teacher-to-student lessons are combined with technology-based instruction, is a successful example of e-learning. Free programmes such as Google Classroom have the advantage that they can be accessed from any device with internet connectivity: whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer at home or in the school’s computer lab. This makes e-learning easily accessible. After all, SA has one of the highest mobile penetrations in the world, with 89% of the population owning a mobile phone (according to the Pew Research Centre) and an increasing number of those are web-enabled smartphones.

Another free online programme – the face-to-face video call service Skype – has helped a Limpopo educator become the nation’s ‘SuperTeacher of the Year 2015’. Tinny Molepo from Mothibedi Combined School was awarded the title by the Internet Service Providers’ Association of South Africa for her creative way of boosting learners’ reading and writing skills through technology. As part of the project, her Grade 3 to 6 learners used Skype to communicate with an American philanthropist who had donated books to their school.

Switched on info

‘I’ve realised that technology can play a big role in helping all of us fulfil our life goals,’ says Molepo. ‘It’s very important for donors and sponsors to be able to see how their materials are helping learners and educators in real ways every day.’

The value of e-learning is being embraced at an institutional level – as well as by enthusiastic individual educators. The SA government has embarked on an ambitious e-learning programme to fix its troubled education system. The Western Cape and Gauteng are especially hands-on, driving innovation through partnerships between the national and provincial government and the private sector. The Western Cape Education Department is investing R1.2 billion over five years to roll out local area networks, refresh existing computer labs and provide technology-rich (so-called ‘smart’) classrooms, develop online digital resources for learners, parents and teachers, and deliver various infrastructure, equipment and devices to schools. The schools will be linked through a high-speed, real-time wide area network.

The budget will cover the roll-out in poorer schools (Quintile 1 to 3) and special-education-needs schools, but the education department is appealing to the private sector and donors to co-fund the digitisation of Quintile 4 and 5 schools.

According to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille: ‘E-learning will assist us in tackling some of the problems we face, including increasing access to quality education in disadvantaged communities, providing support for struggling learners, contributing towards teacher training and professional development, and improving management and administration at schools. It will also provide learners with the skills to participate in our increasingly technology-based economy in the future.’

In Gauteng, the Big Switch On pilot project is currently connecting township schools to the 21st century. The successful phase 1, launched in January 2015, brought connectivity and digital know-how to seven schools in the Eastern Development Corridor. Each classroom now features an interactive whiteboard and teachers have personal laptops. Every learner is due to receive a digital tablet with pre-loaded lessons – programmed for educational purposes only and fitted with tracking devices against theft. All seven pilot schools have been equipped with surveillance cameras and are staffed by two armed security officers, as well as IT specialists to help the teachers and learners.

Turning all Gauteng schools into ‘schools of the future’ will cost an estimated R17 billion by 2019.

‘This programme has revolutionised township education,’ said Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, at the launch of phase 2 in July 2015, when 1 800 classrooms at 376 Gauteng schools were switched on simultaneously, benefiting 351 educators and 56 000 learners.

‘These schools will experience for the first time state-of-the-art technology to support effective teaching and learning in class. The project stands on six pillars, namely connectivity; devices; e-learning content; training and development [teachers and learners]; support, security and maintenance; refurbishment and renovation.

Switched on PQ

‘Through this project, the Gauteng Provincial Education Department has advanced ICT connectivity and equipment to enable learners to have access to learning material, workbooks and e-books.’

Sales of e-books have taken off in SA. In July 2014, the school educational publishing industry had sold 64 000 e-books compared to 1 000 the previous year, according to publisher Via Afrika. ‘The gigantic jump was a clear move towards e-learning, but sales have settled into a far gentler growth over the last couple of years,’ says Michael Goodman, the company’s group content manager.

While critics claim that e-learning is not viable locally because of patchy internet access and poor digital infrastructure, Goodman argues that properly implemented e-learning can help learners participate in the digital world and alleviate the national education crisis.

‘Proper implementation lies in using educational technologies that span the online and offline worlds,’ he says. ‘Our e-books do not require an internet connection after they have been downloaded and activated online. All interactive exercises and multimedia then work offline.’

At Maskew Miller Longman, the Platinum, Focus and other curriculum-approved e-textbooks can also be used offline as a download or PDF. And, when connected to the internet, they offer full-motion video support and synchronisation of notes, as well as the creation of online study groups where learners can collaborate and share material.

Both publishers – along with Oxford University Press, Pearson Education, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Cambridge University Press and others – are using media technology company Snapplify as one of their e-book sales and distribution platforms. Snapplify also has two e-learning solutions – Engage (which simplifies the sharing and downloading of educational apps and books, as well as free fiction titles) and SnappBox (which can be preloaded with e-books, taking into account schools with limited or no access to internet).

The scope for further innovation is massive. Via Afrika has, for instance, converted shipping containers into digital education centres. Equipped with Android tablets, a computer, WiFi access and the publisher’s own e-books, apps and digital content, these centres are currently providing four schools in Limpopo, Free State, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape with access to e-learning. More are being planned.

The initiative is run in partnership with the Department of Basic Education and offers companies a CSI opportunity that can be closely monitored and evaluated through its integration with each school’s curriculum and assessment.

E-learning increasingly also incorporates games as an interactive approach.

In ‘gamification’, the learning process as a whole is turned into a game, while ‘game-based’ learning uses games to teach specific learning outcomes. For instance, in some primary schools the learners play digital games on tablets or PCs that assist them with their mental maths or help them to playfully memorise the periodic table for science, or the map of Africa for geography.

As internet access, content and devices such as smartphones become more widely affordable, the success of e-learning hinges on the training of teachers and their willingness to use technology in the classroom. Or, as Goodman puts it, ‘a set of teachers with the knowledge and skills to implement e-learning effectively, and a set of teachers with a mindset that embraces e-learning’.

Technology in education should never be used simply for the sake of it. However, it has to be embraced, if we want to dodge ‘digital Darwinism’ – being outpaced by technology. Darwin introduced the concept of the origin of species and with it the idea that those who fail to evolve will become extinct. It’s something to increasingly keep in mind to help SA learners avoid the fate of the dodo.

By Silke Colquhoun
Image: Andreas Eiselen/HSMimages