Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Covid-19's disruption of the school calendar has seen the Eastern Cape department of education  spending more than R25m on tablets for grade 12 pupils as part of its e-learning initiative.

“We have taken a view that we must remodel the schooling system in the province to proceed with education anywhere, any time, anyhow. The introduction of e-learning is as a result of that concept,” education MEC Fundile Gade said in an interview with the SABC last week.

Gade said the introduction of e-learning will contribute to the gains the province has made in the past three years. In 2019, the Eastern Cape registered the highest improvement of matric results in the country, obtaining a 76.5% pass rate compared with 70.6% in 2018.

Gade said in a statement that a partnership with the MTN/Sizwe joint venture will, among other things, benefit learners through virtual classes and enable them to access other education-related portals during the coronavirus pandemic “through zero-rated SIM cards”.

The e-learning initiative will allow for teachers and learners to communicate remotely via tablets and allow for classes to be broadcast  from designated centres in any location. It will also support an all-in-one broadcasting system with live video streaming, and the function to record lessons any time.

Gade's spokesperson, Vuyiseka Mboxela, said there were 57,000 matric pupils in the province who will benefit from the project. MTN has provided 72,000 SIM cards preloaded with data to the provincial government.

The Eastern Cape is a largely rural province with poor ICT infrastructure and network coverage, especially in far-flung parts of the former homeland. It has been plagued by years of poor service delivery and maladministration. Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu announced in June 2019 that the province was the worst in SA for irregular expenditure.

Makwetu said at the time that irregular expenditure was more than R7.2bn for the 2017/2018 financial year, adding that the province's cumulative irregular expenditure stood at R25.5bn.

In March 2019, the provincial education department received the biggest slice of the state's education budget at R36.3bn.

When asked how learners in such areas would benefit from the initiative, Mboxela said the government was upgrading  ICT infrastructure in the province.

The Eastern Cape reached an agreement with the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) in Marcy 2019 to rollout a broadband project that will connect 7,000 sites, including government departments and other services such as clinics in remote areas, with Wi-Fi, through wide-area networks.

Mboxela said they were in the process of “getting a full print of areas that might not be covered” by broadband, which she said was “not going to be more than 10%” of the province.

She said satellite connectivity for such areas could be considered, but nothing had been decided just yet.

Yusuf Cassim, DA member of the provincial legislature and shadow education MEC, told Business Day on Friday that he will write to Gade to raise concerns about the project because “they were very wishy-washy when we asked them about this deal”.

MTN said in a statement that project is part of its multipronged intervention that seeks to mitigate the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak on communities in which it operates, “particularly those that have the least resources to counter the pandemic”.

In addition to the 72,000 SIM cards, the company said subsidiary MTN Business has also contributed equipment. It included state-of-the-art cameras, white boards and other equipment valued at R27m “to support the 13 broadcasting studios that the provincial government is setting up” to be used to conduct virtual classes.

MTN Business chief enterprise officer Wanda Matandela said: “The provision of these SIM cards and the ICT equipment is part of our ongoing efforts to offset the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak by ensuring that we harness the power of connectivity to facilitate access to education for millions of pupils who are unable to attend school because of the nationwide lockdown.

“This is part of our contribution to the national efforts to use digital solutions to recover lost time and stay abreast of the school curriculum.”