Computer literacy out of reach

As one who assists a poor school on the outskirts of Durban with the teaching of computer skills, I believe the aims described in the Mail & Guardian's recent five-part series on information and communication technology in the classroom are simply unrealistic.

The school I became involved with some years ago is rated as the top school for academic achievement in the region. But it was quickly clear that all was not well in the computer class.

There were about 20 computers available, but not one was in working condition. The person then employed to teach the subject was attempting to do this by purely theoretical methods because it was not possible to do any practical work on any computer. The teacher was barely able to use a computer anyway and resorted to reading lessons from textbooks, which the students were expected to memorise.

This teacher was soon replaced by one whose subject was life sciences and she asked me to assist her in the teaching of computers. The first task was to set up a usable classroom. By begging and using what business, friends and church contacts we could, we managed to build up, format and reprogram 25 working computers, all running MS Windows XP and MS Office 2003.

The computers generally have 125Mb of RAM, so they are quite slow. There is no internet or email connection anywhere in the school because of cost. We have an ink-jet printer connected to one computer, which makes printing a complex process unrelated to actual work or normal computer experience. Printing is in any case kept to a minimum because of cost.

The course offered by the school is called computer application and technology (CAT), a three-year programme for grades 10, 11 and 12. But it became apparent very early on that the students had no computer knowledge or ability at all. Teaching the grade 10 syllabus was therefore impossible. It was agreed that, to assist in solving this problem, I would offer a one-year "computer familiarisation" course to the grade nine pupils, so that they would at least have some computer ability before starting CAT in grade 10.

I gave this course after normal school hours. There are about 100 students in grade nine, so they were broken up into four groups of 25 students to suit the number of computers.

Cream of the crop
The plan was to sort out as rapidly as possible those students who showed no ability or interest in this subject and we eventually reduced the class to 25 "cream of the crop" students.

In the first lesson, I asked the class how many of the 100 had access to a computer at home or through a friend. Contrary to the experiences related in the M&G series, which assumed pupils had easy social access to computers, only four said they did. None of the other 96 had ever touched a computer.

But what the lucky four did on their computers was play card games. When I asked what the class thought a computer could be used for, nobody could offer any suggestions except for one who suggested that it could be used to pay money from a bank account, but he was not sure how.

CAT results in a very basic ability to use and modify already set-out spreadsheets, Word documents and so on. There is very little original work required from the student. Part of the examination is theory, which I think is what most teachers and students depend on to get some type of mark in the matric exam. I believe the theory part should be scrapped and the entire teaching emphasis be placed on practical application.

This contradicts the M&G series, which argued that South African schools should avoid the teaching of word-processing, spreadsheets and PowerPoint as isolated skills. But, in my experience, we would succeed in what we attempted to do if all the students in the computer class emerged from the three-year CAT curriculum with any practical ability in these three topics.

Practice needed
These students are exposed to computers only in their last three years of school. They do not have any means of practising what they have learnt or expanding on this knowledge because they lack access to computers outside the school environment.

In addition, the teaching of this subject is limited to only a few hours a week. The matric results for last year were dismal, with only one student in the school obtaining more than 50% and more than half the class failing to achieve a 30% pass mark.

It is in these schools where the real coalface of computer teaching is situated. I would not begin to describe what we do as producing "computer literate" people who can walk into a normal commercial office and begin to originate Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. I prefer to say that we are producing "computer familiar" people.

The problem does not lie with the students, but rather that in many rural areas there is no exposure to this technology until grade 10, by which time it is already probably too late to learn a whole new and complicated discipline.

Add to this the usual problems of the lack of qualified teachers and lack of equipment in most of the schools and there is very little hope of success along the lines the M&G series described.

Harold Hodgson is an industrial chemist

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