Today's youth are technologically switched on. Unlike many of their teachers, they were born in a world dominated by information and communications technology, the world wide web, computers, smartphones, iPads, Kindles, iPods, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It is their reality.
An education system that fails to take this into account will be missing a unique opportunity not only to give real substance to child-centred education, but also to equip our nation's youth to take their rightful place in the global community.
How quickly are children able to make the most of digital technology? Experience in the United States, Italy, India and Ghana indicates that, with the right sort of stimulus, children take to using technology with remarkable agility and enthusiasm, regardless of their backgrounds.
Worldreader, a non-profit organisation based in the United States and Europe that describes its mission as making digital books "available to children in the developing world", reported on the introduction of e-readers to primary school pupils in Ghana: "Students spent significantly more time reading outside of class, both at recess and lunch and at home, using the e-readers than they previously had done using paper books."
In another example, a class of 10-year-olds in an Italian school was asked who Pythagoras was. The class was divided into groups of four, each with a computer, and the pupils were left to their own devices. In a short time, right-angled triangles started to appear on their screens.
How, then, could we integrate digitisation in South Africa's school curriculum? In the United Kingdom and the US in the early 1990s, the response was to create a subject called "computer literacy". But what curriculum developers failed to recognise was that the children for whom the subject had been designed were already skilled web surfers, so lessons in basic computer skills quickly bored them.
A huge turn-off
It soon became clear that teaching information technology skills in isolation from their purposeful application was a huge turn-off. Most of the pupils already knew more than the course could teach them and what they did not know they quickly learned from each other. Last year, the UK revised its IT curriculum in favour of an integrated approach across the curriculum.
South African schools could benefit from this experience by avoiding the teaching of word-processing, spreadsheets and PowerPoint as isolated skills. It is an old adage in education that people learn best what they teach themselves. Schoolchildren will discover the IT skills they need when they need them.
The trick will be for the teacher to set tasks that are problem-based and open-ended — ones that allow for creativity and for a variety of responses, collaboratively or individually. This is not so very different from what they should be doing already.
Being "connected" is a defining feature of today's youth, but collaborative learning and student-centred education (that is, learning for the individual's needs and capacities) are not new. Digital technology simply provides today's pupils with the means to maximise the advantages of collaborative learning by being connected.
When regard to smartphones, the youth are often well ahead of their teachers. But what they will need — and in this they are no different from any other generation — is ethical guidance and help with intellectual direction and focus. Smartphones are really mini-computers and, with social networking sites, provide a growing resource for digital content. However, content must be filtered so that students are protected from inappropriate, explicit material, predators and other dangers so that their privacy is respected.
The ethics of social media should be an important focus of classroom discussion and a well-crafted, acceptable user policy should be the point of departure. Facebook bears out James Britton's contention in his 1970 book, Language and Learning, that our understanding of the world and the way we create meaning are a consequence of negotiating understanding in social contexts.
The social media are just the latest manifestation of those contexts — and if nothing else, Twitter illustrates the importance of choosing one's words carefully. But remember, quality and value depend on delivering content that is consistent with learning objectives. Good practice starts with good content that is tailored to the students' needs.
Here, though, we need to beware the "interactive" tag commercial producers of educational software use to market almost every programme. It is true that a major advantage of digital software is its capacity for interactivity, but many of the claims need to be rigorously interrogated. There is more to it than simply providing confirmation of a right or wrong answer.
Interactive software should provide for complex interactions centred on the choices the pupil makes. A truly "interactive" digital textbook should automatically insert support material, exercises and tests that permit instant self-evaluation. Similarly, simulation games can help students to practise solving problems, strategic planning and making decisions, and many educational software programmes make use of the techniques that gaming programmers have devised.
Digital technology enables students to collaborate with others no matter where they are, learn to navigate today's multimedia and experience more personalised, customised instruction.
Digital textbooks can be annotated without destroying them. They could even overcome our now infamous distribution problems. And a real plus for schoolchildren: they could eliminate heavy bags.
Michael Rice runs the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools Foundation. This is the fourth in his five-part Mail & Guardian series on digitisation and education