Integrating technology beyond paperless classrooms

Classroom technology's use is on the increase: many teachers use technical devices such as tablets or whiteboards to increase learners' participation. (Photo: David Harrison)

Classroom technology's use is on the increase: many teachers use technical devices such as tablets or whiteboards to increase learners' participation. (Photo: David Harrison)

Over the last two decades, technology has reshaped all of our lives in fundamental ways. We live in a better connected, healthier, easier and more efficient world thanks to rapid advances in mobile phones and computers. These benefits have spread to people in the poorest and most remote areas — mobile phone penetration in South Africa is now 87%, and over half the population is connected to the internet. Surely, therefore, technology must be the answer to one of our biggest problems: education?

It is certainly needed! Last year South African learners placed near the bottom of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Some of the problems technology is best placed to help with include distance learning, learners without access to a well-educated teacher or parent, and adults who missed out on quality education the first time around. These problems are particularly acute in South Africa.

Technology is not, however, a magic bullet. If things are done in the same old way, with a bit of added (and likely expensive) technology, they will produce “business as usual” results (or worse). Similarly, we must be wary of the more far-fetched theories — trying to make teachers and schools completely obsolete is likely to fail educationally and technologically. Slogans such as “paperless classrooms” do not address the nuances of balancing technology and educational needs. We need new approaches to education that use the best efficiencies of technology but are built on up-to-date learning science and implemented with rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Their success will depend on how profoundly we understand the problems and then apply the requisite technology, as opposed to assuming that technology in itself will magically improve the situation.

There are four areas in education in which technology can make a big impact: delivering access to content regardless of location, improving learning outcomes and teaching, making teachers’ and students’ lives more efficient and effective through better administration, and training or re-training of young people with work-relevant skills. We need to concentrate on these areas with a rigorous focus on effectiveness, while using sound scientific principles for new interventions, supplemented by continuous monitoring and evaluation. Only by supporting teachers and entrepreneurs who are creating innovative, real-time solutions — instead of large bureaucracies and organisations — will we truly harness the power and potential of education technology.

South Africa has been a world leader in the past in the first area of focus — creating remote access to content regardless of location or access (some of the neediest learners in this category are the disabled), with Unisa delivering distance learning 25 years before the UK had its first Open University. Today, this mantle has been picked up by peer-to-peer study communities such as Together We Pass and The Student Hub. In this, as in all areas, pedagogy (the science of learning) must lead technology. Distance learning technology (especially for younger students) needs to acknowledge the effectiveness of direct instruction, utilise rigorous scientific findings such as cognitive load theory and learn from the mistakes of direction free programmes such as Sugata Mitras’s “hole in the wall”. The rigorous evaluation inherent in the Global X learning prize, to which 10 South African teams have applied, is a welcome development.

Technology can also have a huge impact on learning outcomes where a classroom teacher is present. Spark Schools have used blended learning (where students learn online or via games and from a teacher) to allow more focused small-group teacher time. Top Dog Education is supporting teachers and learners not only with great content but also an information dashboard that uses artificial intelligence to focus and simplify their efforts. Siyavula has a team of scientists developing superior (and open source) content for in and out of school learning in maths and science. Edutree provides a smarter way to revise for maths exams by organising past paper questions in a progressively more difficult order, so you can build up knowledge easily. English Word Power delivers a comprehensive programme for matriculants and tertiary students to bolster their levels of English academic proficiency across writing, reading and listening skills in order to overcome language barriers and ready themselves for tertiary level content.

Despite the importance of the early years of education and basic literacy, only a few start-ups are operating in this area, and this should be a priority for investors and entrepreneurs.

The third area of opportunity for technology — improving education’s efficiency and effectiveness — can, by freeing up teachers to teach and students to learn, have a huge impact on outcomes. Cape Town-based Karri payments is using mobile technology to improve school payments and communication, saving staff time, increasing revenue and improving community engagement. Snapplify is in over 1 000 South African schools, enabling simpler access to a wider range of digital content. Students using Clock education can plan schedules, review content and receive feedback online. South African entrepreneurs would do well to examine international developments such as no more marking for technology methods that can reduce teachers’ administrative burdens and costs.

Providing students with work-relevant skills is a crucial area for EdTech, given South Africa’s high youth unemployment rate; perhaps because of this, the country is becoming something of a world leader in the area. Get Smarter is offering short, professional courses from the world’s best universities, and recently became the first $100-million acquisition in African EdTech (proving this sector is a huge business, as well as education, opportunity). Hyperion is a rising star in training developers, expanding into the UK after its success in online developer training in South Africa. If we are going to get more young people into work, and re-train older workers with skills fit for the 21st Century, we are going to need more basic and advanced tech skills programmes such as those run by CapaCiti. South Africa should also follow Estonia’s push to make coding an extensive part of the core primary school curriculum. Rekindle Learning significantly improves training outcomes for companies in financial services, where young people who would otherwise be unable to obtain a job are empowered to pass financial regulatory exams using adaptive micro-learning techniques instead of thick training manuals.

In all four of these areas, and indeed more, technology has the potential to raise standards and transform lives in South Africa. These solutions — which are able expand far more rapidly than traditional bricks-and-mortar education — can then be scaled up for use throughout the African continent. As the examples above show, the big innovations are those developed here, not overseas, and come not from centralised programmes or big bureaucracies but from entrepreneurs and teachers. We need to give them more support, which is why Jamie Martin is partnering with CiTi to found Africa’s first EdTech dedicated incubator programme here in South Africa.

Government, business and investors must step forward and enable innovators to create new solutions and then work out ways for students to access them. If this transpires then South Africa — with its unique mix of a modern industrial economy, vigorous entrepreneurialism and great education challenges — can become a centre of education technology innovation for the world.