Day after day rural schoolteachers walk 3km down a sand road from where the taxi drops them off to a training centre in the rural district of Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal.
In this remote area they visit a centre housing an advanced learning environment that uses sophisticated computer and satellite equipment to train them in how to implement the new national outcomes-based curriculum.
Teaching the teachers in urban areas seems a relatively simple task compared with the problems encountered in rural areas. In the cities workshops can be held in nearby centres, but in these distant areas there are obstacles such as the distance the teachers have to travel and the lack of telecommunications infrastructure.
The training system uses two technologies that are common in urban areas: Internet browsers that present information in easy-to-follow lessons, and satellites that broadcast the lessons to each teaching centre.
There are 23 centres in this Multimedia Rural Initiative, funded by the MultiChoice Africa Foundation and The Netherlands.
“The teachers do a 12-week course on computer and TV using text, video and audio clips, which … makes for a very interactive introduction to the curriculum and enables them to stand in front of a classroom and introduce this new curriculum,” says the foundation’s Robert Hofmeyer.
Producing suitable material to teach the teachers is just one problem, deploying it in schools is an entirely separate, and perhaps more taxing, challenge.
“Teachers were complaining that they needed to put the curriculum into practice, but workshops were too technical and all the material was on paper,” says Hofmeyer.
The solution? A demonstration video was created and broadcast to the training centres. A TV viewing room was set up in each centre and the lessons were broadcast at set times on set days. However, teachers struggled to get to the centres on time, so the videos are now broadcast to a computer in the centre and can be replayed at will.
“Then the teachers go to the computer room, where they practise the theory. This is very interactive. It is mostly text-based, with video and audio clips, graphics and animation all intermingled with the text,” says Hofmeyer.
The teachers are taught the basic skills required to use the computer system. “The amazing thing is how quickly they get used to it. All the content is Internet Explorer-based. It’s like surfing the World Wide Web.”
After working in the computer room, the teachers discuss the lesson with their colleagues and cement what they have just learned. Each teacher’s progress is tracked and the system captures all the results of that week’s courses.
The interactive site provides other resources, including electronic versions of The Teacher newspaper, the Mail & Guardian‘s sister publication.
It also provides useful tips, such as how to make cheap clay for pupils. “There’s also a forum where they can post questions and teachers in other centres can respond,” says Hofmeyer.
There are still logistical problems to overcome.
“We’re still struggling to get connectivity working at some centres, says Hofmeyer. “Dial-up [connections to the Internet] are too slow, so we are investigating innovative technology like satellite-based broadband.”
To overcome the need to call out support staff to the distant centres, local people are being taught basic computer support and troubleshooting skills.
“The facilitators come up to head office [in Johannesburg] to be trained. If we find a budding technician, we train the person for the area,” says Hofmeyer.
An indication of the system’s success is how teachers react if it goes down. “We have a riot if teachers walk 3km to use computers and they are down.”