Education is ailing, but are Lesufi's tablets the cure? – Politicsweb, 5 August 2015

Sara Gon questions the wisdom of the Gauteng MEC's "paperless classroom" programme.

By Sara Gon

Will eTablets treat what ails education?

On 21 July 2015, the MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyasa Lesufi, announced the roll-out of “technology enabled teaching and learning program to Grade 12 learners” in the Gauteng province.

Commonly known as “the paperless classroom” the programme involves the use of interactive boards, and devices such as tablets and laptops with complete internet connectivity, to provide teaching and enable learning.

The department has selected 375 high schools with Grade 12 classes to participate, mainly in township and rural areas.

According to the department’s press release, over 4 000 matric classrooms have had to be re-furbished, ceilings replaced and fitted with specialised lights, and blinds installed to improve lighting for the interactive boards. The department has also purchased over 17 000 tablets for Grade 12 learners and 1 800 3D LED interactive boards. Lesufi says:

“The interactive boards, fitted with world class teaching software, are fully integrated with the learners’ tablets for ease of interaction during the delivery of lessons. The GDE is working very closely with law enforcement agencies to strengthen security at the schools, all schools are linked to their nearest police stations for rapid response. The devices have been fitted with trackers to ensure that they are traceable should they get lost.

There have been delays with installation at about 30% of the targeted 375 schools owing to some of these schools needing major infrastructural refurbishments. Contractors are on site and will work in the afternoons and weekends to avoid disrupting teaching and learning at the schools. The deadline for the completion of this work has been set for the end of August 2015.”

The department aims to provide every classroom with tablets by the end of the 2017/2018 financial year at a cost of about R 17 billion.

Lesufi believes they will interactive behaviour between teachers and pupils. Interactivity, though, depends on the abilities, approach and knowledge of the teacher, not the materials. He says that teachers have been trained on the use of the materials but it is questionable whether the investment at this stage will prove enough of a boon to make a substantial difference to education.

Issues that schools will be faced with are the availability of power, recharging tablets that run out of power at different times and what services are at home to charge tablets. There are also the issues of theft and the selling of tablets.

As pointed out above certain schools have had to be repaired considerably to make them ready for the program. At R 17 billion it has to be asked whether the first priorities regarding infrastructure aren’t the more basic ones such as schools in good repair with working toilets.

Additionally,

Unlike textbooks, tablets need to be constantly upgraded with new apps, software, security and operating systems;

Tablets are a tool like textbooks – they don’t increase the quality of teaching if teachers are incompetent in their subject;

At the end of Grade 4 more than half of our students cannot read for meaning and interpretation, and a third are completely illiterate in any language

61% of our grade 9 students did not know that three fifths was equal to 0.6;

76% were not minimally competent in maths or science in grade 9 – that do not know about whole numbers or basic graphs. They are 3-4 years behind the curriculum;

14% of matriculants will qualify to go to university, but only 10% will actually go to university and only 5% will get a degree. So of 100 kids that start school, only 5 will get a degree. 60 will not get a matric pass, a certificate or a degree;

In a study comparing the North West and Botswana, at the end of the year our maths teachers had taught only 40% of the maths lessons they were scheduled to teach, compared to 60% in Botswana;

According to an education report by OECD released this year SA ranked 75 out of 76.

Dr. Nic Spaull, post-doctoral Fellow at Stellenbosch University and visiting scholar at Stanford, provided this information to a conference hosted by the Wits School of Governance, the OR Tambo Foundation and the UNDP entitled “Implementing the NDP: Achieving Basic Education Goals” on 7 July 2015.

Spaull holds that the poor results achieved in education are the “antithesis of social mobility”.

He attributes the problem as largely due to an absence of accountability and capacity on the part of teachers and administrators. Spaull believes that both are a consequence of the politicisation of the civil service and cadre deployment, the networks of patronage in system, and the unhealthy relationship between the Department and SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).

Meanwhile in the fashion to which we have become accustomed with the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), a march they had organised erupted in chaos. Students from Soweto, Thembisa and Mamelodi broke into and vandalized shops, pelted hawkers with stones, and trashed and stole their stock. According to The Star (Friday, July 24), COSAS was demanding tablets from the department, although it was ostensibly a protest against a departmental directive that schools close their gates during teaching hours for safety reasons.

The additional demands were a combination of understandable and risible

– pupils were tired of carrying school bags and wanted tablets;

–  complaints about the appalling condition of toilets;

– healthy food for lunch;

– increased security;

– parents to take an interest in the education of their children; and

– the distribution of condoms at school;

– a demand that the axed PRASA CEO Lucky Montana be reinstated because he was once a Cosas member.

In 2002, a COSAS march in Johannesburg descended into chaos with learners looting, stealing and smashing car windows. Leading the march was Julius Malema.
Maybe tablets aren’t a priority? Is Lesufi putting lipstick on a pig?

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.

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