Lessons for our future

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The speed with which Covid-19 changed the way the world works has meant that educators and learners have had to adapt rapidly. As many parents will attest, absence truly does make the heart grow fonder — and more admiring — when it comes to teachers. Now parents are grappling with how to impart knowledge to locked-down little ones and navigate the ins and outs of secure online platforms, class video call schedules, and devices shared among families. 

In every social and economic segment of South African society, education needs to be adjusted to a world that was already changing fast before the pandemic, and has now been accelerated. To prevent the digital divide from growing further, technology needs to be embraced as a matter of urgency — but it may not look how we would imagine.

Emma Strydom, Cape Town designer and co-founder of MAL Ideas, is no stranger to meeting kids where they are when it comes to education. Last year, she was awarded the Grand Prize at the Shenzhen Design Award for Young Talents for her work on “Sifunda”, a project in which appealing, simply depicted characters are placed in supermarkets to encourage discussion and in-context learning for children shopping with their parents or caregivers. Now that a world featuring family grocery trips seems distant, Strydom has turned her attention to other media, taking her cast of colourful characters to Instagram and other online learning platforms for MALminds, a series of illustrations and activities that young children can enjoy on their phone, or that of a parent, sibling or guardian. 

“We can see how the education sector is suffering,” says Strydom of our current circumstances. “And mostly for the kids who under normal circumstances education is already a struggle: kids who don’t have access to educational stimulants. We’ve seen how well Sifunda worked and thought to apply that to MALminds by changing our approach a little.” 

The next stage of the plan is to bring the characters to TV screens, continuing the strategy of meeting kids wherever they might be. For those who children don’t have access to devices or data, they’ll be able to see their educational friends on TV in their homes, so their acquisition of basic skills including reading, writing, counting, art, learning about shapes and even social studies can continue unhindered. The studio will seek funding, sponsorship, and a TV partner to ensure the long-term sustainability of their project.

For Glenn Gillis, chief executive of Sea Monster Cape Town, it’s essential that the power of tech to transform education be embraced as a matter of urgency, at a significant scale. “We need to take the pressure off of teachers to deliver all of the knowledge, and let technology do some of the heavy lifting. Now more than ever, knowledge recall is not a goal in and of itself,” says Gillis. He explains that this shift will free up teachers to use their time in the more valuable capacity of “the coach, mentor, guide who helps you to understand where you are in the learning journey”. 

To understand how this might work, it’s important to understand that for young learners, tech-enabled study will look very different from a video replica of their classroom environment. Instead, it will look a lot more like games, because play in a purpose-designed virtual space can teach children multiple subjects at once, cultivate empathy, encourage problem-solving, and allow them to understand their skills in a context that makes them easier to acquire and apply. 

Ambitious? Yes, and necessarily so. Expensive? Not in comparison to the cost of ignoring innovative teaching methods, argues Gillis — and when we get down to numbers, a smart device costs significantly less than the price of a few textbooks, and might prove to be money better spent from an education budget. For Gillis, an effective education system should prioritise the use of tech to “remove the wrong barriers, and inspire people with the new barriers. Everything is a challenge, and we need to ensure that people are inspired by those challenges”.

Let’s bridge the digital divide

Whatever form school may take in the future, access to data will be an essential component of tech-enabled learning
Whatever form school may take in the future, access to data will be an essential component of tech-enabled learning

For all the challenges that South African education has faced in the past, there has perhaps been no moment more crucial for its development than this. With the vast economic divide set only to widen if education is not widely accessible, and knowledge attainable largely through technology in times of social distancing, there exists an opportunity for disaster or for innovation, intervention and positive growth. 

In late 2018, Pew Research Centre found smartphone penetration in our country to be 51%, with an additional 40% of South Africans using feature phones with access to the internet. If between 80 and 90% of South Africans have ready access to a phone with web capabilities, the key question is clearly whether those phones can be used to connect to the internet. 

Whatever form school may take in the future — and it will likely look very different to the conventional classroom, duplicated online — access to data will be an essential component of tech-enabled learning. It’s also one of the less complicated obstacles to quality education: make data access free for those using it to learn, and that barrier is removed. 

Universities are working to make their own platforms and resources accessible without data, or by providing data bundles to students, and private initiatives such as Vodacom’s e-School platform provides learning resources on a zero-rated platform for customers. 

South African Resource Portal sacoronavirus.co.za is zero-rated to ensure that this government site is accessible to all who need reliable information about the pandemic. 

A dystopian view of the future has placed data as the gatekeeper that precludes many from knowledge, and some form of that vision could easily become a reality if data costs continue to climb in a time of economic instability. On the other hand, the solution is already there, and if enough entities are compelled to make information more accessible to the public — especially learners —  the path to common knowledge has already been mapped. 

Food for clear thought 

Schoolchildren receive porridge as part of the school feeding scheme in Limpopo.
Equal Education wants schools classified as essential services facilities so school feeding programmes can resume

As uncertainty prevails around the contentious issue of schools reopening, young learners are missing out on meals. While going back to school is arguably not worth the risks attached, the need for nourishment is urgent. Advocacy group Equal Education has called for the designation of schools as essential services facilities so that school feeding programmes might resume. 

The group has called on the department of basic education “to ensure that the plans presented by Minister Motshekga” in terms of the phased reopening of schools includes “full details of the impact of the phased re-opening of schools benefiting from the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), both for learners returning to school and learners who may have to remain at home. Undocumented learners do not currently benefit from the child support grant, and are in need of meals that they would ordinarily receive at school. The suspension of the NSNP is a regressive measure that must be fully justified”.

In the interim, individuals and organisations are attempting to fill the gap left by NSNP. Cans with Purpose is using the infrastructure of Afrika Tikkun — an organisation fostering holistic growth in disadvantaged communities “from cradle to career”, including a nutrition and food security programme —  to distribute food to children who have no other source of nourishment. Inspired by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for South Africans to pull together, businessman Brad Stern quickly became a “good news story”. He has raised funds and donations in kind from corporates and private donors, as well as significant awareness of child hunger, a cause that’s frequently forgotten. 

Can you help? 

These are some of the organisations addressing hunger in South Africa: 

Cans with Purpose: afrikatikkun.org/canswithpurpose

The Lunchbox Fund: thelunchboxfund.org/donate 

Food Flow: foodflowza.com

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