Digital learning centre opens new doors for pupils

"With computers we can go anywhere we want … it's like touching the world," said Grade 10 learner Belta Dombeni.

She spoke to the Mail & Guardian at the launch of the Hazyview digital learning centre in Tshabalala village on Friday. The centre is the brainchild of the nongovernmental organisation, Good Work Foundation, and aims to provide skills, via computer courses as well as lessons from teachers, in information technology, tourism, English and health care.

Sixteen-year old Dombeni first used a computer last year. "Our families don't know computers but they are proud that we know how to use them," she said.

Coming from a disadvantaged background, life is tough for Dombeni but "before the foundation helped me, it was just bad".

She said using computers at the centre, which has already started teaching, was "taking my life to another level".

"You can research anything you want. Sometimes when you ask too many questions people will get irritated with you but the internet never gets irritated."

The facility, whose construction was funded by a R3.7-million donation from information and communication technology company T-Systems, can accommodate 300 learners at one time, has 51 computers, two computer rooms, two classrooms and wireless internet connectivity.

In keeping with the African tradition that a tree is a place to meet and discuss important matters, learners can also gather under a digital tree of knowledge, which features power points, a sound system, and a USB connection to a terabyte of learning material.

Using technology such as smart screens, as well as the skills of retired teachers, among other resources, the centre aims to offer learning opportunities to anyone who wants them.

The big divide exists between people who have access to information and people who don't, said national planning commission chairperson, Trevor Manuel, speaking at the launch.

"This is a place where information is brought down [to people] … [They said] we don't want charity. Give us the link and we will do the rest."

He told attendees: "People are going to come from all over the country to see this place."

Performing for attendees, pupils shared what the foundation meant to them.

"You elevate our minds, you mould our brains, you sharpen our characters, you awaken our spirits. Angelic and charitable is what you are… You are marvellous," said Grade 10 pupil Holani Mhlongo.

In a world of instant information the challenge is to match "untapped emerging human potential in rural South Africa with the possibilities of the digital world", the foundation's chairperson Dave Varty said.

As problems associated with the delivery of textbooks and the shortage of skilled teachers become more pressing, South Africa will see that a "digital space can take those problems away", said the foundation's chief executive officer Kate Groch.

Using computers to learn "must become the new normal … It is unacceptable that depending on where you are born you either have a chance or you don't", she said.

The opportunities presented by computers meant "there is no difference whether you are in a classroom in Tshabalala or a classroom in New York".

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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