Digital technology: the new leveller in education

technologyFor a country with one of the most uneven playing fields, technology is one of the great levellers – particularly with our cellphone penetration rate of nearly 90% – ahead of India and China with respective rates of 84% and 76%. And when it comes to education, let’s face it, learning from a mobile phone or any other electronic device is a lot more appealing than listening to a teacher talk, or trawling a textbook. After all, teachers are no longer the primary source of information. Just as well, given the grave shortage of motivated, qualified and experienced teachers that has only exacerbated South Africa’s endemic education crisis, says IQ Business.

Sineliso Sithole is a grade 10 learner from Dumabezwe Secondary, outside of Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal. This hilly area is renowned for its poor mobile network coverage. Therefore, Sineliso’s teacher regularly drives him and a few of his classmates to the top of a nearby hill so they can successfully sign up for Intelligent Practice – technology that aims for mastery through practice, and is adapted to learners’ individual needs. Using algorithms, each customised practice session aims to push learners to achieve an exercise success rate of 70% (at an appropriate level of difficulty).
In under six months, Sineliso has gone on to practise over 15 000 mathematics and science exercises.

He says his love of Intelligent Practice stems from his marks having improved so rapidly, as well as the acknowledgement he receives from Siyavula that makes him feel “excited and proud” of himself.

Globally, digital learning is being embraced by schools as well as higher institutions of education. But when it comes to Africa’s challenges around education, solutions are probably best sought in Africa itself.

With the explosive growth of technology, the world has changed and will continue to do so. And for education to achieve its objectives in South Africa, content – and how it’s made available – needs to be viewed in the context of learners’ needs, and adapted accordingly.

Digital services such as Mxit and Siyavula are empowering South Africans with instant educational content. In 2011 Siyavula partnered with instant messaging app Mxit to ensure widespread access of learning material. The goal was to provide a digital-focused solution through interactive digital textbooks and learning aids for grade 8-12 pupils. Within the first 48 hours of the content having been released on Mxit, Siyavula recorded an impressive 150 000 subscribers.

Today, Siyavula provides over 10 million digital textbooks to South African learners, and Mxit affords 500 000 learners the opportunity to access digital education. Research indicates an average increase of 14% in users’ mathematics marks, since using Siyavula. Then there’s Quizmax, an interactive Web site accessed via Mxit. It’s a godsend for Grade 10 – 12 learners, who are now thriving on account of this revision tool for maths, physical science, and life sciences. It enables learners who are active Mxit users to do revision at their own pace. They’re presented with questions that are adapted to their own mastery levels. And the system provides valuable feedback to schools and institutions through detailed online reporting.

Africa has a teacher-to-learner ratio of 2.2 teachers per every 100 learners – amongst the lowest in the world. Add to that the fact that a mere 7% of South Africa’s public schools’ libraries are stocked, with textbooks regularly failing to reach some of our learners. With e-learning, which has the potential to provide quality education to the masses, even those in inaccessible locations who are often deprived of the relevant resources can benefit.

Several countries around the world have banned the use of cellphones, citing reasons like potential health threats from radiation, cyber-bullying, cheating during exams, impact on student performance, and even equity (in bring-your-own-device policy schools, especially, the devices belonging to the more affluent kids might cause a feeling of inferiority amongst the rest). South Africa is one of the few countries around the globe that hasn’t banned the use of cellphones in schools. And we’re realising as a nation, the true value of a ‘digi-life’, with government now having also come on board in the digital education space, through the roll-out of tablets and other digital devices in schools. South Africa’s “paperless” classroom focus is being driven through e-learning platforms and digital academic material. And the roll-out in Gauteng alone is estimated to cost R17 billion over five years – underscoring government’s commitment to digital being a key role player in South Africa’s educational future.

With South Africa’s Gini coefficient being among the highest in the world – around 0.65 according to the World Bank – quality education is a sure priority. So, why not leverage the most obvious leveller: technology?

Transformed service delivery through digital technology can be so much more than the story of Sineliso and a few others – it can be about how all South Africans are afforded easy access to education.