Grade 12 learners from Unathi High School at Cambridge Location in this file photo. Picture:Sibongile Ngalwa
Grade 12 learners from Unathi High School at Cambridge Location in this file photo. Picture:Sibongile Ngalwa

SA high schools lag significantly behind those in other developing countries in terms of their access to computers. In addition, only a quarter of public schools offer computer applications technology (CAT) as a subject, and these are mostly the wealthier schools.

Almost 70% of quintile 5 schools — those in the wealthiest communities — offer CAT, against just 6% of the poorest (quintile 1) schools. The upshot is that only about 7% of matric candidates (about 35,000 learners) pass CAT each year. This mirrors the severe inequalities in access to technical subjects in general. In SA, half of white males study these subjects, against just 5% of black males.

So, broadening access to technical subjects and digital learning would appear to be an important step towards creating a more equitable education system.

However, according to numerous education experts and academic studies, rolling out President Cyril Ramaphosa’s policy of one device per child would likely be a colossal waste of money.

"There is no research internationally to show that technology, given as one device per child, isn’t a complete failure," says Stellenbosch senior education researcher Nic Spaull.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t be taught basic computer skills such as writing, filing and searching for information on the internet. These skills are important to enable young people to participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life around them, according to "Students, Computers & Learning: Making the Connection", the 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), an intergovernmental forum.

What it means:

Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching

The most cost-effective way to enable poor learners to acquire basic computer skills is to have a functional computer lab at school. However, in the context of SA — where of 48% of primary schools are not connected to the internet, 26% have no running water and 12% have no electricity — this approach has been beset with practical problems.

Nick Taylor, a senior research fellow at JET Education Services, says that without good security, school-based computer labs will invariably be looted. Internet access can also be a big problem, especially in rural areas.

Basic technical support is also essential, as the online system invariably goes down regularly. If there isn’t someone on the premises to attend to this, the lab will lapse into dormancy. Even if all these practical problems can be overcome, there needs to be a proficient teacher to run basic computer classes.

"The notorious Gauteng Online project, which was soon known as Gauteng Offline, is testament to these practical difficulties," says Taylor. "It faded ignominiously from view a few years ago, providing many of the computer-lab graveyards in Gauteng’s township schools."

However, this didn’t stop the Gauteng government from subsequently declaring that classrooms would become paper-free and that all students would be issued with computer tablets to eliminate inequalities among schools.

The project doesn’t appear to have been formally evaluated and, though the province continues to trumpet its success, education experts decry it as a complete waste of money.

Unfortunately, politicians continue to be drawn to the idea that hardware is a quick fix
Nick Taylor

"This project also sank without trace within a year, suffering from the same practical problems," says Taylor. "In addition, there arose the problems relating to charging [tablets] during school hours and of course of students losing or selling them, or having them stolen."

Practical issues aside, the most compelling argument against the use of computers as an aid to learning comes from the developed world: even under optimal conditions, fancy devices don’t work any better than conventional teaching and learning methods — but they cost a lot more.

The OECD report’s key finding is that "ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to hi-tech devices and services".

In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, the report concludes, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.

"Unfortunately, politicians are persistently stubborn in not learning these lessons," says Taylor, "and continue to be drawn to the idea that hardware is a quick fix: much easier to procure than good teachers and less troublesome — and don’t all those shiny machines in poor schools look good?"

Brahm Fleisch, a professor of education policy at Wits University, is equally of the view that "technology in education alone cannot, and will not, solve [SA’s] education crisis. Though it appears to be an attractive option for policymakers to make promises of tablets for every child, there is little evidence to suggest that it is financially viable or educationally effective."

Spaull thinks SA should rather focus on ensuring that all schools have access to the basics before shooting for the moon. "If teachers are not trained on how to use new technology — and by that I mean properly trained, not in these three-or four-day workshops — then rolling out technology will have no impact, and will be potentially disastrous."

A global review of 26 studies on the use of hardware in teaching in Colombia, Peru, China, the Netherlands, the US, India, Israel, Romania, England and Ecuador published in the American Economic Review in 2018 found that the bulk of interventions (67%) produced no clear results. Only 27% produced clearly positive results and 6% produced clearly negative ones.

Corrin Varady, the CEO of IDEA Digital Education, which operates in six countries, concedes that technology interventions in schools have had mostly mediocre results, some of which were patently negative. However, he remains optimistic that technology is a part of the solution for SA and the emerging world, and welcomes the president’s one-device-per-child directive.

He argues that, given the comparatively low content mastery of SA teachers (40% have only a secondary-school education), in conjunction with the fact that teaching is not attracting career professionals, it is essential to provide students with access to interactive, feedback-driven educational resources to enable them to self-direct their learning.

While he views digital education as a choice in private schools, he considers it a necessity in the public school system "because we don’t have an alternative solution in getting our teachers, and therefore our learners, properly resourced to be able to compete on a global stage".

This doesn’t mean SA should circumvent teachers or stop providing professional support. "However, we can’t rely on this right now to address the urgency of the fact that our students do not have access to the same education, resources or knowledge that others do all over the world," he says.

In the Western Cape, the firm is enabling more than 189,000 students, mostly at poor schools, to access IDEA’s curriculum-aligned digital content through the provincial education department’s existing computer labs and fast Wi-Fi infrastructure.

The key success factor appears to be the teacher support and training that is offered. "When we get that right, we find our results are exponentially better and the uptake is guaranteed," says Varady.

The results in 2018 were above Varady’s expectations.

In the best cases (where schools actively incorporated IDEA’s content in the timetable) there was a 35% increase in assessed performance in grade 8 science, and a 10%-20% improvement in certain areas of reading and writing in the foundation phase.