Sustainable solutions

A diverse group has gathered at the Naziema Isaacs library in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town in response to a notice about a writers’ workshop.

It represents a cross-section of the community: 12 year olds in school tracksuits; teenage girls; young men with funky hairstyles; a matron with a genial face alongside older men in formal jackets.

All are fledgling writers - and none of them is fidgeting. They’re spellbound, hanging on the words of the animated speaker in the centre of the circle. Diane Awerbuck is worth listening to.
She also has a funky hairstyle and looks no older than the girls in the audience - but she’s a published writer with an international reputation. Her novel, Gardening at Night, won the Commonwealth Award for Best First Novel for the African region in 2004.

“You are the future!” she tells her audience, speaking with envy of their multilingual skills and their roots in the soul of Africa.

Her words are an inspiration for aspirant writers - and she also has practical advice to offer on how to achieve a published future. But most of her advice involves access to the Internet. Does the audience have the facilities and expertise to take advantage of the wealth of information that’s only the click of a mouse away? Increasingly so, it seems.

For one, the Naziema Isaacs Library has benefited from the current Smart Cape Initiative, which aims to make Cape Town the most connected city in Africa by the end of 2006, with Internet access points at libraries throughout the city.

Users will be provided with Linux open source software and access to the Internet and e-mail. But, librarian Theresa Bergsma explains, the installation of six computers does not provide instant answers as no further support is provided. Library staff and potential users often lack the expertise they need to make full use of this newly available resource.

Help is close at hand at the Masiphumelele Primary School across the road, where Edunova, a not-for-profit education consultancy, is working with the Western Cape department of education’s Khanya project and the Shuttleworth Foundation to pioneer an approach to curriculum delivery, using open source Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Founding directors John Thole and Terence Berry are as inspirational about their field of expertise as Awerbuck is about hers.

“Computers change everything!” enthuses Berry, a chartered financial analyst by profession. “Teachers become facilitators, allowing learners to determine the individual learning patterns that suit them best.”

Young idealists often have lofty goals of transforming learning - but the Edunova programme is anchored firmly in the real world. Financial planning plays a major role in costing and sustainability planning for the technology they work with. Berry uses technical jargon such as a thin client network, broadband Internet connections, open source software and curriculum delivery. But Edunova is focused on practical budgetary issues: the debate over whether to use new or refurbished computers in terms of the warranties provided; timetabling to allow maximum learner access to computers; choice of software; and costs of consumables such as paper and cartridges.

It’s clear that Edunova is determined computers will not become white elephants in the schools with whom they partner.

“A cost that is often underestimated is staff development,” Berry points out, echoing the complaints from the staff at the Naziema Isaacs library. Most of Edunova’s work is done in disadvantaged communities and a key aspect of its philosophy involves collaboration between schools and other community organisations.

“A collaborative scheme works most effectively with between four and seven schools involved,” says Berry. “Such a collaboration would involve joint training sessions, information exchanges, flexible use of staff with key skills in ICT, maths and science, or sharing specialised facilities such as a drama room or playing field.”

A training session is in progress in the well-equipped computer room at Masiphumelele Primary, where teachers drawn from local schools are working. Their screens are alive with fruit and vegetables as they work on a lesson on nutrition, a topic covered at various levels in current school curricula.

Berry and Thole move from computer to computer, assisting the presenters from Computers4Kids, a computer education programme used by 200 South African schools. These programmes are available to learners in the computer lab and include user-friendly outlines of the lesson assessments and ongoing pupil evaluations now demanded in the outcomes-based education model.

Edunova was involved in British initiatives to build schools designed to introduce change, such as classrooms with three walls of brick and mortar while the fourth is made of glass and borders a recreation area. Learners who complete tasks more quickly can go and relax while still in full view of the teacher.

Innovations like these may be beyond the budget of South African schools, but Edunova has some creative structural alternatives. Learning hubs are shipping containers built to accommodate a computer laboratory with any number of computers in a secure, air-conditioned and networked solution, which can be delivered to a school quickly.

Edunova’s commitment to education isn’t confined to primary schools. Through contacts with Britain, they have also brokered the donation of a world-class management information system to TSiBA, the Cape Town extension of the phenomenally successful free university, CIDA, in inner city Johannesburg.

Edunova currently operates a pro bono support system to ensure the programme is used to maximum advantage on the campus.

There are no easy solutions to the South African education crisis. “There is no active national ICT leadership development programme or academy,” complains Thole. “Some of the educators are growing in confidence and skills, but they get gobbled up by the day-to-day operational realities of their individual schools and much of the potential is dampened.”

Despite these problems, young South Africans, from writers to librarians and computer experts, are taking concrete steps to resolve the chronic skills shortage - and their efforts are making a difference.

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