Plugged in pupils are sparking

Luphumzo Ntwanambi is small for his age. The 15-year-old, who is in grade nine, sits nervously in his headmaster’s small office in Mvuso Junior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape. His clothes are neat but show obvious signs of wear and tear: a white collar frayed around the neckline, a jersey whose warmth has been washed thin. In this part of the province, few people are wealthy.

For most pupils in the area, education is not a way to break the cycle of poverty. Last year the Eastern Cape was the country’s worst performing province, with fewer than two-thirds of matriculants passing. But poor marks start in lower grades. In the 2014 annual national assessments undertaken by the department of basic education, the average mark for mathematics among grade nine pupils was 11.1% and for their home language (isi- Xhosa) it was 38%. But pupils have been thrown a lifeline in the iNciba district in Cofimvaba, where Information and Communications Technology for Rural Education Development (ICT4Red), a pilot project being conducted with the district’s 26 schools, aims to use technology to bridge the gaps in basic education. 

This is why Ntwanambi’s school – comprising three small buildings organised in a U-shape, pit toilets contained in corrugated iron shells about 20m away from the simple school structure, and a container kitchen – has state-of-the-art tablets and a central server sending apps and lessons to pupils by wi-fi. “Nearby schools are jealous,” says headmaster Mpunzi Mqombothi, gesticulating out the window of his office. “The schools up the mountain, the high school, they do not have tablets. The children move to this area to get a better education.” The majority of schools in the district are junior schools catering for pupils from grade R (preschool) to grade nine. 

Only three high schools are included in the ICT4Red project. It forms part of a larger programme: Technology for Rural Development, an initiative that includes the national departments of science and technology, rural development, and basic education, as well as provincial government departments and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute. According to Nonhlanhla Mkhize, the chief director for inclusive development in the department of science and technology, the Tech4Red programme includes ICT, sanitation, energy, nutrition and science centres. 

“The basis for the programme is to ask: How can we contribute to improving education service delivery? How can we apply new and existing technology to assist or contribute to improving the quality of basic education?” Mvuzo Junior Secondary School, which is just off the R61 that runs between Queenstown and Cofimvaba, has 376 pupils, taught by nine teachers, including himself, Mqombothi Plugged in pupils are sparking The roll-out of an innovative ICT project is seeing remarkable results but what comes next? says. The school has been given 150 tablets, so one device is shared by two pupils, excluding grade R. 

Every morning the tablets are handed out to them, and every afternoon they are packed away again. In the room next to the headmaster’s office, secured with an intimidating security gate, the large metal cases containing the tablets sit next to a large server. “We have textbooks, but the tablets could replace them — they have enhanced learning. The pass mark has gone up, from 70% to 97%,” Mqombothi says. 

The roll-out of ICT4Red, which has a total price tag of about R71-million, began in 2012 with the Arthur Mfebe Senior Secondary School in Cofimvaba, followed by 13 schools in 2013 and 12 in 2014. The schools are using a wide range of tablets, from Samsung to Huawei, some with wi-fi, others with 3G, each a trial to see which technology fits best with which school. But, even within the relatively small iNciba district, schools vary dramatically. 

In Zamuxolo, the pupils are asked to leave their classroom when I arrive to interview their headmistress, Nomonde Tyembile: there is no staff room or principal’s office, and so the only place to do the interview is in one of the classrooms. The school also teaches grade R to nine but is not as well-resourced as Mvuso. There are eight classrooms in two buildings, a grade in each class. But pupils in grades R and seven are taught in mud rondavels with broken windows and doors. 

Tyembile, one of 11 teachers at the school, which has 380 pupils, says the technology has eased “the frustrations. Even in this situation,” she gestures to the broken windows and cramped space, “there are some good things that we can get.” The teachers and pupils can download subject-specific apps and the curriculum from the provincial department of education. She acknowledges that there are still challenges, though. 

On the day of my visit, for example, there is no electricity and they cannot charge the tablets. Despite its pit toilets and a corrugated structure used as a kitchen, which also houses schoolbooks because they would take up space needed for pupils, Zamuxolo has a pass rate of 95%. Tyembile, who has been headmistress since 2000, attributes its success to dedicated teachers and the “infusion of technology”. “Maths and English have improved since we got the tablets [in 2013]. This year, because there is more on the tablet, we are able to download more,” she says. 

The apps and content have been developed for South African schools, with many of the interactive games teaching pupils while they “play” on the tablets. Sindiswa Sibawu, who is in charge of e-learning in the Cofimvaba district’s department of basic education, says that exposing teachers to the technology is also important. “The educators also had to do modules to get qualified and had to be assessed, aligned with the curriculum,” she says. Since its inception, more than 360 educators have been trained to teach with tablets and to use ICT in their classrooms, with more than 5 600 pupils benefiting.

Sibawu, who was a maths and science teacher in Lady Frere before joining the department in 2008, talks excitedly about the project. It makes a difference because “it introduces the skills for teaching and learning for teachers and learners. Everyone was computer illiterate.” But she is adamant that tablets cannot replace teachers. Mkhize says teachers are pivotal in the roll-out of ICT in schools. “We had to look at the most appropriate way for teacher development. You’re dealing with teachers of different ages and at different [stages of] development,” she says. 

Simphiwe Chulayo, the headmaster of the Gando Junior School, has been teaching there for 32 years, but he smiles sheepishly when we talk about the tablets. “Some of us are not 100% on using the tablets. Me, I’m old. Technology does not favour the old.” His school is the best resourced of the three schools I visited, with wellmaintained facebrick buildings and a grassed play area. The pupils are “very excited about this programme. They love using this technology.” 

The majority of the school’s 471 pupils come from the surrounding area. Chulayo adds that most of their parents are illiterate. “The young parents also have access to the tablets; they usually organise classes for themselves.” But the question mark that hangs over ICT4Red schools is: What happens when the project is over? Mkhize says, for the department of science and technology, the goal of the project was to collect data. “We need to be able to say, ‘These are the numbers: these are the number of schools using the hardware, these are the schools that are not using it for these reasons’.” 

She says her department’s role was to investigate how to roll out ICT in this rural district, with the goal of a model that was achievable. “How many schools do you know that received desktop computers? Do the teachers know how to use them? And then what if there is no content [on the computers]? No power? 

“The department [of science and technology] cannot be responsible for the large-scale delivery [of services] like the department of basic education … The only way you can make it sustainable is when it [the provincial department] takes over. The key thing is to [help] it to institutionalise the ideas so that it’s their project,” Mkhize says. “There is a commitment from [the provincial department of basic education] to scale up. We will continue to work with them for the next two to three years, but at some point we have to stand back.” 

Asked about the introduction of tablet technology to rural schools, the civil society group Equal Education’s Daniel Linde is sceptical. “It’s not necessarily the best direction of funds,” he says. “If conditions for learning and teaching were better, if there were flushing toilets across the province, if schools [had] reliable electricity and sources of water, all of those things could lead to learners wanting to come to school more and a more conducive learning and teaching environment.” 

  • Sarah Wild’s trip to Cofimvaba forms part of her research for a book project that will be published in 2015 by the Gordon Institute of Business Science and Pan Macmillan South Africa Prescribed tablets: A test project in 26 rural schools is proving what ICT can do for marginalised pupils. Photos: Sarah Wild and ICT for Rural Education Development.

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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