African Tech Voices: 'If Kenya can do it, why can’t we?'
While there has been much interest in online and hybrid learning over the past few years, actual implementation has lagged behind and this was made painfully obvious during the recent spate of lockdowns. Based on observed successes, it is clear that a more centralised approach from the government and private sector partnerships is needed to ensure that educational institutions are equipped to deal with every eventuality.
Looking closer, the state of adoption of education technologies in South African institutions of learning varies widely, depending on whether it’s government- or privately-owned and on what age groups it caters to. Past experience has shown that children in the junior phase require more human interaction, which can be lessened as they progress through to high school.
Going further, young adults can get by without needing to have a lecturer physically present in most cases, and this can be seen in the growing number of successful higher education institutions (and the wide variety of courses they offer) that operate fully online, and are bringing tertiary education to a broader market.
As can be expected, private institutions have been early technology adopters and continue to maintain their lead by expanding their adoption and usage of online tools. In the case of the government, taking Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges for example, the uptake of educational technology solutions stands at about 30%, with much room for improvement.
A part of the challenge for many government-owned tertiary education institutions is that different departments or even different campuses have varying degrees of autonomy, which makes it harder for there to be consensus on a unified solution. Rather, they should take a leaf out of the private sector and let a centralised IT department identify and qualify the solutions that their organisation should use.
It is here that the private sector has a vital role to play - not just in terms of fulfilling their corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives, but also to secure their own pipeline of skilled employees for the future.
Past efforts have included corporates setting up computer labs at schools with little training or support, and a lack of content resulting in inefficient usage of the facilities and equipment, while poor implementations of online or hybrid learning solutions have left educators feeling overwhelmed. This has resulted in several educators reverting to the traditional ways of teaching as some sense of normalcy returns, and people engage in face-to-face interactions again - an unfortunate step backwards.
Many of these missteps into an online or hybrid learning environment stem from the failure to first identify the teaching methodology and then move on to the enablers, such as interactive boards, devices, and the supporting IT infrastructure. Beyond just the technology, the focus is placed on training educators so that they can work more effectively and efficiently, allowing them to embrace digital teaching.
This requires a change in mindset on the part of the educator; for example, with so much information available online, classes should now focus on collective problem solving instead of traditional learning. On the part of the education authorities, it requires a move away from antiquated paper-based reporting - which serves as a disincentive to the broader adoption of education technology - and toward digital tools.
Making the shift to online or hybrid learning is not as simple as installing some devices and turning on a switch, but is about having the right methodology that enables a seamless transition in case of a disruption to normal classroom activities. More critically, though, getting the methodology wrong can result in youth falling behind in comparison to their peers at institutions that got it right.
Of course, no conversation about online in South Africa is complete without mentioning access to connectivity as well as the high cost of data, which have been identified as factors holding back broader adoption of online or hybrid learning.
While some local communications providers have set up online learning platforms as part of their CSI initiatives, they have taken a walled garden approach with access being zero-rated for their subscribers, and a paid-for service for others, which is counter-intuitive.
Beyond just the infrastructure, these initiatives have to be expanded to include training and support, as well as the development of digital learning material that can be broadcast to multiple institutions.
It might at first be easy to point to South Africa’s multiple challenges as the reason for falling behind in comparison to peers from more developed countries: the high cost of devices and data, and larger infrastructural challenges such as loadshedding.
However, Kenya, for example, has overcome the odds to make great strides when it comes to education technology in their universities and is now deploying ICT more broadly into basic education.
In fact, such is the scale of their deployment that they have partnered with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to make the devices locally. Not only does this help make it more cost-effective, but also contributes to the local economy and paves the way for more jobs.
There are public-private partnerships that are having an impact locally: organisations have implemented several such successful projects in recent years. This includes a proof of concept sponsored by the South African Public Colleges Organisation (SAPCO), which consisted of deploying learner management systems to 38 TVET colleges and providing training for educators at those institutions.
But, this has to be just the beginning, and the government and private sector have to come to the party.
What is needed is for CSI initiatives to put the development of South Africa’s youth ahead of marketing and branding initiatives, and to partner with the government and educational institutions in order to drive meaningful change. If Kenya can do it, why can’t we?