The education sector worldwide is changing too rapidly — because of the information communications technology revolution and the need for global competitiveness — for any finality on what might constitute best practice for ICT in schools. But, drawing on the developed and developing worlds, it is possible to draft a "good practice" model for South African education.
In proposing the following model, I have consulted practice in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Ghana and South Africa, although these guidelines will need to be amended when change in this fast-developing area demands it.
Allow plenty of time for planning — between six months and a year. A lot of ad hoc implementation is happening and it could prove very costly. It is a mistake to start with the technology, which is only a tool and only as good as it is fit for purpose. Define your aims and objectives: do not choose a device and then wonder what to do with it.
Planning should include an existing infrastructure audit — what already exists and how it is being used and what is needed. Internet access must be fast and reliable. Also, determine technical support for both devices and software.
It is vital that the programme has a champion on the staff who is the technology facilitator or media co-ordinator, or both. Strong leadership is crucial, but there must be support for the project at all levels. Have a shared vision that will guide the strategic plan and give all members of the school a common direction, enabling people to work together. A technology strategy and objectives must be presented to teachers, staff, administration, parents, pupils and the unions. Realistic expectations must be set with timelines for implementation and measuring results.
Involve as many people as possible. Not all teachers will have the same level of commitment. Keep tabs on enthusiastic and reluctant adopters. Publish a road map on the staff notice board of expected key outcomes and learning milestones. Help teachers to understand the advantages and differences of digitisation and how it will improve teaching and learning. Help them to overcome their fears of technology, including their reluctance to be shown up as technologically incompetent in class.
The challenge for teachers is how to make the best use of technology and digital content and how to adapt classroom methodologies and teaching styles. This means ongoing professional development must be a priority. Teachers must feel confident about how to use technology, and how to integrate it into their teaching and assessment.
There is more to digitisation than internet access. Classes should have basic technology such as interactive white boards and subject-specific equipment such as microscopes and software for maths and science. Cellphones that can access online dictionaries, Wikipedia and the social media can be useful tools for language development. Good practice starts with good content that is tailored to the pupils' needs.
Enlist pupils' help
Today's youth is technologically savvy and a valuable resource. A pupil advisory panel can review and recommend proposed technologies and initiatives. A pupil technical assistance team can provide support, such as network maintenance and device repair. The more they feel they are making a contribution, the more they are likely to be committed in class. A number of studies in the US report an improvement in discipline in schools that have gone digital and in which pupils have become engaged with their learning.
An "acceptable use policy" that defines responsible and educationally appropriate use of computer resources is vital to ensure that resources are not abused. The policy should be negotiated and agreed to by parents, pupils, teachers and administrators and requires a code of conduct for using school technology and personal technology on school property. This can include regulations on privacy, plagiarising and inappropriate or illegal material or behaviour on the internet. It should also include the right to discipline pupils for cyber bullying, stalking and harassment.
Proper filters, firewalls and other security measures must be put in place to safeguard the networks, data, pupils and staff from viruses and hackers. Because of our high crime rates, provision must be made for the physical security of devices and for the safety of pupils who leave the school property with devices in their possession.
Technology can help pupils with special needs to access and participate in the general curriculum. Software that provides a text-to-speech function is an added bonus.
For pupils to achieve technology's full benefits, teachers may need to reconsider and change — or at least be willing to bend — conventional rules and wisdom.
The digital divide
There are two issues: one concerns access to technology, the other relates to the curriculum. Not all pupils will have equal access to devices. If internet access is necessary to complete homework, make sure there is a solution for those who do not have broadband at home. Equally, there may be pupils who do not have access to tablets or readers at home. Provision must be made for them if such devices are necessary.
As far as the curriculum is concerned, technology is there to support learning. Computer skills are not an end in themselves but a means to an end. A dedicated slot in the timetable for computer skills isolated from content can quickly become a turn-off.
As with all technology, devices in education are subject to occasional failure, so a lack of access to timely maintenance and repairs can have a dramatic impact on teacher frustration. A plan for maintaining, upgrading, repairing and replacing hardware and software is essential. The pupil technical assistance team can be useful here too.
Michael Rice runs the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools Foundation. This is the final of his five-part Mail & Guardian series on digitisation and education, which can be found at: mg.co.za/ICTclassroom