Can private sector shake up basic education?
Can the private sector help to shake up basic education in SA? A number of firms have tech solutions in place
The state’s failure to deliver textbooks to schools without incident has, for years, dogged SA’s already ailing basic education system.
Digital textbooks and online learning materials could solve the problem and raise the country’s education standards, according to private sector players who are wading into this space.
Companies such as Vodacom and Snapplify (which is backed by former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan) are punting the idea and say they have buy-in from the public sector.
Jordaan, whose plans to shake up the banking sector with digital platform Bank Zero are better known, has three investments in the education space, including a Montessori school, which promotes critical thinking.
"Sadly, we are still failing the youth of SA. We regularly come last in international comparisons for maths and science, and our high unemployment rate is linked directly to low education outcomes," he says.
While the unemployment rate among graduates "is very low", graduates are in short supply.
In 2015, Jordaan invested in Snapplify, a company that, at last count, had provided digital textbooks to about 800 schools in SA and other parts of Africa. This model makes books more affordable and "solves the problem" of nondelivery, Jordaan says.
He is also invested in codeX — which trains software developers — and Newberry House Montessori School.
Jordaan says it has taken too long for mind-sets to change in the education sector, which has lagged other industries in terms of the adoption of new technologies and processes.
"For example, it is arguably better for a school to have great Wi-Fi connectivity — giving access to all the knowledge in the world — than a library, and it is better for teachers to use the online content of some of the best teachers in the world than to insist on doing the classes themselves."
And having been taught the traditional way, teachers are trained to be "content experts" rather than stimulators of curiosity, he says.
Jordaan adds that the education system rewards the memorisation of facts — "which can now all be found for free on Google" — rather than problem solving, teamwork and entrepreneurship.
That is one reason why he believes coding should be a part of every syllabus.
Snapplify founder and CEO Wesley Lynch says the private sector "has more easily available funds to integrate e-learning", though there is a "definite interest" from public sector schools to digitise.
And while connectivity is an issue for schools elsewhere in Africa, he says the lack of digital infrastructure "is not as dire as some might think", considering that mobile phone penetra- tion is high.
To address the problem of connectivity, Snapplify launched a hardware-based product that can be preloaded with digital content. "Students can download e-books directly from their school’s ‘Snappbox’, instead of the Internet — which cuts down on bandwidth costs and download time."
Snapplify is one of many educational technology firms to have launched in recent years. Others include GetSmarter, Obami and Suits & Sneakers University.
As part of its corporate social investment programme, Vodacom launched a free online learning platform in 2014. The company has partnered with the basic education department and plans to add digital versions of all state school textbooks to the platform in the near future.
Corporate affairs head Takalani Netshitenzhe says: "The vision of our CEO [Shameel Joosub] is for the country to move towards ‘one learner, one mobile device’, where we do away with hard-copy textbooks altogether and we digitise the entire curriculum so that it’s accessible everywhere.
"We want to integrate the platform with the department’s cloud platform, because it is working on something similar.
"The department is planning to digitise most education-related material," Netshitenzhe says.
The department did not respond to requests for comment.
Vodacom’s e-school platform has 420,000 registered users, though only 25,000 of them use the website regularly.
Though the embrace of technology in education is widely seen as positive, it does have some drawbacks. Some parents, for instance, might prefer that their children use physical textbooks rather than look at screens for extended periods.
And Netshitenzhe acknowledges that having expensive devices also introduces security risks.
Further, equipping every learner with a tablet or similar device is a huge and expensive undertaking, which means funding will be required from corporates.
Some in the industry also argue that where online learning diminishes interaction, students could fail to develop crucial communication and critical-thinking skills.
But these limits haven’t stopped financial institutions from also entering the fray.
Nedbank-backed Tendopro, for example, is a free education platform that allows learners to have access to supplementary learning and revision material online.
And Internet giant Naspers could build out its digital education business, CEO Bob van Dijk said recently.
The company has an investment in Brainly, a social network for students. Van Dijk says Naspers is "very excited" about companies that use technology in education.
"There will be a few companies that will make a tremendous difference in [transforming education] and we are looking for those companies," Van Dijk says.