Paperless classroom hasn't taken off yet

Paperless: In difficult circumstances, new classroom technologies become valuable commodities for learners - and criminals

Paperless: In difficult circumstances, new classroom technologies become valuable commodities for learners - and criminals

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi described the provincial department’s introduction of tablets and smart boards replacing textbooks and chalkboards for matric classes in mid-2015 as “changing an areoplane’s engine while the areoplane was flying”.

His view is that the fact that the province achieved an 84.2% matric pass rate, marginally behind the best performing province of the Western Cape, was a significant achievement, bearing in mind Gauteng’s opening gambit of introducing new technologies to the province’s classrooms.

The initiative, which has become known as the “paperless classroom” programme, is expected to cost in the region of R17-billion over five years, as all 3 000 schools in the province will be provided with tablets and smartboards.

“If you want to see a chalkboard, you must go to a museum, you must not come to our schools,” Lesufi has allegedly said.

A smartboard, or a digital whiteboard as it is sometimes known, can be used as a projector, an internet browser, a normal board for the teacher to write on digitally, or it may be written on by students from their desks, using their tablets.

And instead of taking notes, learners can take a snapshot of anything on the board and save it for studying at a later time. The benefits are obvious, if the technology is utilised optimally.

While Lesufi has been big on talking the talk, the rollout of tablets and smart boards to matric classrooms been by no means seamless.

In fact the rollout has run into a number of problems, not least rampant crime.

A statement in January of this year from Lesufi stated that more than 100 of the 1 800 smart boards installed in Gauteng classrooms had been stolen.

Of the 64 000 tablets rolled out last year, only 54 000 remained at the end of that year, although in his January statement, Lesufi said that the number of tablets still outstanding had been reduced from 10 000 to 4 000.

“We are making progress in recovering the stolen smartboards, working with the police,” he said. “We are working with tracking and recovery companies and police to improve on the recovery rate.

“It must be emphasised the main objective is to prevent the break-ins and thefts,” he said. “We are in a process of finalising the processes of strengthening the prevention side with proper interventions.

“We call on all those Grade 12 learners who still have tablets in their possession to return them otherwise the department will exercise legal recourse, including [the] opening of criminal cases.”

The tablets had been fitted with tracking devices, but department officials have stated publically that once a learner removes the original sim card from their tablet, the tracking system becomes useless.

But the missing tablets are not just from students refusing to return them to their school; a number of learners were in fact assaulted and mugged for their tablets by opportunistic thieves.

It has also been reported that the Gauteng education department had to spend R200 000 on repairs to tablets in 2015, mostly for screen damage.

Critics have questioned the rollout of expensive technology to schools that don’t even have proper ablution facilities, electricity supply and wi-fi connectivity, while the Democratic Alliance has questioned why the contract to supply schools with tablets was given to Edusolutions, the company involved in the Limpopo textbook scandal a few years ago.

Michael Goodman from e-publisher Via Afrika says that the success of the smart board technology is dependent on having qualified teachers, who understand how to integrate them into their teaching methodology.

“If you don’t train teachers well, you won’t see the full benefit,” says Robyn Beere, director of Inclusive Education South Africa. “If a teacher used an interactive whiteboard as an overhead projector, it’s still the same old way of teaching.”

Goodman says that security is obviously a big issue and it would be unfortunate if the crime problem resulted in a decision to prevent learners taking their tablets home, because then paper textbooks would be needed after all.

Tim Fish Hodgson from Section 27 says that in “special schools”, which cater for learners with disabilities, crime has meant that expensive technology is locked down in a labs with additional security measures, and that this hampers the learners’ ability to get the most out of the technology, as they can’t even use it in the hostels they live in during the school term.

Kate Pearson from Section 27 says that many teachers are complaining that they haven’t been given adequate training to integrate the technology into their teaching.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union has taken up teachers’ concerns, arguing that the programme is being rolled out too quickly and that teachers need time to adapt.

Attempts to get an update on the paperless classroom initiative from Lesufi proved unsuccessful; his spokesperson Oupa Bodibe failed to respond to numerous requests for an interview.

While introducing technology into the classroom will greatly benefit learners and teachers in the long run, it’s obvious that Gauteng’s paperless classroom initiative is still grappling with many teething problems.

Lloyd Gedye