Getting in touch with tomorrow

The recent annual national assessment (ANA) results reveal that we are staring a national catastrophe in the face. Literacy and numeracy levels, the bedrock of our entire way of life, are, by common consent, disastrous.

At tertiary level the situation is no better, with universities spending valuable resources of time, money and talent on problems not of their own making.

There are no quick fixes in education; no one-size-fits-all; change is gradual and incremental. The system is too complex, too big for anything else. Instant solutions and grand plans, as we have seen, can be catastrophic.

But the time for blame is past and I want to make one suggestion. I have in mind a practical option that is not a cure-all, but with the right support it could make a significant difference to a number of problems bedevilling our education system and thereby contribute to improving the whole.

Technology provides opportunities for solving one of the most intractable obstacles to teaching and learning in our schools: making sure that every child in every school starts the year with all his or her textbooks.

Mobile touchscreen tablets could provide a practical solution that could cut costs, eliminate the physical storage and distribution of hundreds of tons of books, eliminate fraudulent procurement practices, and ensure that every child receives the necessary texts on time.

A world revolution
The world is being swept by an IT revolution as profound as the Chinese invention of paper or Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type. Devices such as the Kindle and iPad have already had a massive impact on the publishing industry. More than seven million iPads were sold over the 2010 Christmas season alone. Amazon.com sold more electronic texts on the Kindle during the same period than it sold conventionally printed books.

The impact on education will be profound — and already is in many parts of the world, where educationists are embracing e-technology. IPads have been introduced to a number of schools in New York in an attempt to improve teaching and learning of mathematics. The state of Florida in the United States plans to use e-reading technology in place of conventional textbooks in all its schools by 2015. South Korea has made a similar commitment. Experiments are being launched in Singapore and China.

A very successful pilot project has been run in Ghana (see Worldreader.org). Bangladesh has committed itself to changing to e-texts for all school texts. Taiwan’s education ministry plans to offer e-readers to schoolchildren next year as part of its efforts to further digitise schools and promote reading.

Let’s fantasise
The following scenario is now within the grasp of our education department. Every child receives a dedicated tablet with exclusive registration and PIN numbers, equipped with a firewall limiting it to downloading education-related texts only, via a technical desk administered by the education department which, in collaboration with educational publishers, prepares texts for the entire school curriculum in electronic form.

At the beginning of each year the departmental bureau, at the press of a button, distributes the learning materials to each student’s tablet. This is as easy as the mass distribution of thousands of emails.

This scenario is the vision that informs the Programme E-Tablets for Schools, an initiative now under development as a joint initiative by a group of private individuals, the Institute for Maths Science and Technology at the University of Stellenbosch and the Project for Alternative Education at the University of Cape Town. The initiative will be launched in Khayelitsha next year and is exploring the educational, financial, technological and logistical viability of introducing tablets into the South African school system, specifically in grade one (to help begin reading) and grade eight (for English, maths and science).

Admin benefits
The logistics of ordering, storing and handing out books at the beginning of the academic year, and collecting them at the end of it, would be a thing of the past. In fact, the “book room” as we know it would probably disappear as a physical space. The endemic corruption that is part and parcel of the textbook procurement and distribution process should be eliminated because no funds need to change hands.

Costs?
The price of tablets is already coming down as demand increases. The basic Kindle now costs about R1?150. However, competitive tablets are now coming on the market. It is reasonable to expect that the price of similar devices will tumble dramatically. A manufacturer in India intends mass-producing and marketing a tablet next year for R220. There is already pressure in the US to sell Kindles for $10.

Educational benefits
Every child in the primary and secondary phases would have all the prescribed texts at the beginning of the school year.

In grade one, international experience already shows that tablets can significantly improve reading skills — and get these young learners hooked on reading too. A project in Gauteng has had remarkable success introducing tablets to autistic children, while one in the US has found that children with dyslexia benefit from learning to read with tablets.

My own anecdotal experience shows that pre-school children left to their own devices to explore beginner texts on an iPad quickly become fascinated and can remain focused for a surprisingly long time.

In the higher grades, curriculum materials could be revised and updated annually and downloaded at the press of a button. Whether engaged with the biology curriculum or a Shakespeare text, students would be able to edit the material in front of them. Extra notes and comments could be inserted in colour code.

Where the language of instruction is English — nominally the case in most of our schools — support and stimulus material can be downloaded for speakers of English as a second or foreign language, who in fact constitute the majority in our schools. The potential of a virtual library cannot be underestimated for those without access to a school library.

Standardised control tests could be downloaded from the departmental desk, and submitted by the teacher for electronic assessment, providing instant feedback. It is technically possible to cut marking and assessment time, depending on the subject, by at least 50%. This will give the education department the opportunity to monitor the performance levels of teachers without time-consuming visits to individual schools.

It is quite simple to cater for the needs of advanced students by allowing them to download enriched material. Additional exercises and support material could be downloaded, giving concrete expression to the educational ideal of individual development.

Tablets could also be adapted to assist teachers with administration, reply to teachers’ queries about the curriculum, provide them with additional support and enrichment material, and even offer distance-learning opportunities.

Some concerns
An instinctive response may be that tablets can easily be stolen. But dedicated devices would have no commercial value. Stealing a school tablet would be meaningless because it would be of no use to anybody except the dedicated user: it could not be converted into a conventional tablet. Safety and security features would, of course, have to be integral to its design.

The fragility of tablets in mass school use could also be a concern and would need to be addressed at the design level. A repair service should evolve once tablets are in common use. In order to instil a culture of care it should be expected that students contribute towards any repair work. Lost texts could be replaced by simply requesting a new download from the administrative desk.

What about schools with no access to electricity? Literature suggests that one solar panel should provide enough power to charge dozens of devices. Tablets have a built-in wireless connection and don’t have to be connected. For downloading material the tablet merely has to be in a cellphone reception area.

I believe the incremental introduction of this technology could improve South Africa’s education system, ensuring it takes its rightful place in the information age.

Dr Michael Rice taught for many years at the then Johannesburg College of Education and is a former special adviser to the minister of education.

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