An easy-to-download app has been developed to assess and evaluate the information and communications technology (ICT) or e-readiness of all government schools in South Africa.
The app, called the e-ready ICT maturity assessment tool, is an initiative of the department of science and innovation and is in line with its commitments to harness science, technology and innovation to improve access to education, the quality of education and school administration. The tool was set to be piloted in March and April, but this has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“E-schools are the future, especially in a world full of uncertainty and where households have limited resources. Education can only be accessible to everyone if we enable access to education and learning through technology, and make it affordable,” says Professor Darelle van Greunen of the Centre for Community Technologies at Nelson Mandela University, which helped to develop the tool in collaboration with the department of science and innovation and the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), with input from the department of basic education.
The necessity for e-readiness and ICT capacity at schools has been emphasised for years, with pledges from the Cabinet in 2013 to deliver free broadband access to 90% of South Africa by 2020, and 100% by 2030, through its South Africa Connect campaign. The 2020 target has clearly not been achieved. The urgent need for e-readiness has been further highlighted with the coronavirus pandemic making people realise that learners should be able to continue learning at home or wherever they are.
“Regrettably we are not there yet in the majority of South Africa’s approximately 26 000 schools; hence, this digital tool is a critical step forward to help our schools transition to a new era,” says van Greunen.
The pilot will be tested in 1000 schools in all nine provinces, with a view to rolling it out to every government school in the country, as well as to all provincial departments of education and to private or independent schools that wish to use it.
The aim of the pilot is to test the tool’s efficiency in identifying a school’s e-readiness. At each school, the principal or an appointed teacher downloads the app, which includes a range of Yes/No questions that can be completed in offline mode in areas with no or low connectivity.
The five e-readiness levels are assessed according to each school’s ICT infrastructure, connectivity, curriculum and digital content, e-administration, teacher ICT readiness and teacher development and support. The levels range from underdeveloped ICT capacity (digitally unaware) to advanced ICT capacity (digitally mature).
When the assessment is completed it is sent to a central database; in areas with no or low connectivity, the assessment is sent when the assessor regains connectivity. In addition to the self-evaluation, an external evaluation is also conducted at each school. The app generates the report on the device, and once the assessment has been completed, the findings and results of the report are available immediately and emailed to the person who completed the assessment and to the department of basic education. This provides the department with the information about what needs to be done in each school to achieve e-readiness. Hopefully, it will act with due urgency.
The idea is that every school should achieve a high level of e-readiness and every single learner in our schools should have a device or tablet, as per the president’s statement a year ago, but teaching capacity is often an issue.
“It’s no good handing out laptops and tablets to schools or introducing coding from grade 1 as the [department] has done, when the teachers are not ICT-trained or the schools don’t have connectivity or electricity,” says Afikile Sikwebu a computer application technology (CAT) teacher at Linkside High, a quintile four school in Port Elizabeth.
Sikwebu, who was formerly a member of the Centre for Community Technologies where he is doing his master’s in IT, was part of the team that collected data for the development of the assessment tool. He explains: “The data collectors were divided into different language groups to conduct the pre-pilot baseline studies in 80 schools across all quintiles. We visited the schools to collect information about their e-readiness and to assess their general and ICT infrastructure, power supply and attitude to ICT.”
The baseline studies were conducted in schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and North West, and included the department of science and innovation’s e-ready assessment in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape. They focused on these provinces to make sure they included a high number of schools in rural areas.
“We found that in some of the schools that have received tablets and laptops, the principals or teachers don’t know how to use them, or they don’t have connectivity or the know-how to integrate ICT into the teaching experience,” says Sikwebu. “In some instances they said ICT made them feel insecure.”
Van Greunen says although the South African government prioritises the transformation of basic education outcomes through ICTs, the policy makers often have unrealistic expectations about the learning improvements that will result from ICT initiatives. “Schools are expected to be able to use ICTs, but it takes an average of four to five years for most teachers to reach a level of technological proficiency at which they can use computers fluidly and effectively.”
Van Greunen adds that several parameters considerably affect the implementation of new technology in the school environment. For example, the opinions and attitudes of principals with regard to ICT adoption significantly influence e-readiness.
“Two schools with the same infrastructure, same human resources and same students can have very different results. There are concrete cases in which a mere change of the school’s principal has generated striking results in a short time. It is, therefore, especially important at the school level for the principal to have a vision of what is possible through the use of ICT, and to be able to work with others to achieve that vision.”
The department of science and innovation initiated the first tool, in the form of a paper-based assessment in 2013, on the use of ICTs in education, through the Technology for Rural Education Project. This three-year project, implemented in Cofimvaba, in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, set out to demonstrate the extent to which ICTs can improve the quality of education. It needed to be tested, refined, piloted and further developed into the current digital tool.
Van Greunen explains that schools assessed as being at the “advanced level”, use a diverse set of ICT tools to communicate, create, disseminate, store and manage information. In some contexts, ICT has become integral to the teaching-learning interaction, such as chalkboards being replaced with interactive digital whiteboards, using students’ own smartphones or devices for learning during class time, and the model where students watch lectures at home on the computer and use classroom time for more interactive exercises.
Sikwebu says that at Linkside High there is strong support for ICT and CAT teaching. “It’s offered from grades 10 to 12, and this year we started a coding club for grades 8 and 9 so that learners can appreciate the value of ICT from the lower grades and gravitate towards programming when they make their subject choices. We have also established a maker space, where learners use digital technologies to develop technology such as microcontrollers, but we are still in the infancy stage,” Sikwebu says.
Based on his observation as a data collector, Sikwebu says the majority of learners are still ICT novices. Their ability to use cellphones or computers and the internet to a certain degree is only the first stage of ITC literacy required to prepare learners and students for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).
If the 4IR is really to deliver on the promise of economic growth, job creation through innovation, improved safety and security, better education, and skills transfer, South Africa has to rapidly and immediately change its education focus and delivery model to be ICT-responsive and e-ready.
It could significantly contribute to the basic and higher education landscape and, ultimately, to employability. In many of our rural areas and townships, it will bring technology to communities where there is none. It will introduce learners to knowledge-based information through the internet and online resources. Learners could access career guidance and applications for higher education and computer digital literacy training could be offered to members of the communities who could also access information and applications for employment.
Sikwebu adds: “If the department of education and various government stakeholders take the assessments seriously and proactively address the challenges highlighted in the e-readiness reports then progress can be realised.”
Heather Dugmore is a journalist and specialist writer in higher education