Technology and innovation in education


Education is one of South Africa’s top three national priorities. In fact, the National Development Plan cites education, training and innovation as being central to the country’s long-term development as core elements in eliminating poverty, reducing inequality and as the foundations of an equal society.
In a bid to discover some of the innovative education programmes striving to increase not only access, but also the quality of education for children and young people, particularly those in low-income communities, I spoke to Adi Stephan, the Head of Learning and Development at IQbusiness—an independent South African management consulting firm.

Stephan said, “Using innovative new ways in education will ensure equal access for learners across geographies and communities. Bringing technology, like virtual reality, into the classroom will immediately uplift the standard, ensuring the same standard across communities and geographies, as well as create a quality benchmark, that, again, is used across communities and geographies.”

South Africa’s education system has faced its share of challenges, but these are being met head-on by the country’s innovators. For instance, over the past few years, education in South Africa has received something of an ”e-learning digital makeover”, in which old-fashioned, dusty textbooks are gradually being replaced by tablets, computers and mobile phones.

This year, IQbusiness launched a virtual reality (VR) school curriculum that is generating a lot of interest among schools and the Department of Education.

Asked what he would say to those who suggest that South Africa is lagging behind in the area of innovation in education, Stephan replied: “Currently, global trending innovations in the education space include the teaching robots for languages (Korea) and 3D glasses for science (Dubai). When it comes to innovation in the education space, South Africa is not lagging behind, but facing different challenges to the rest of the world.”

Stephan said, “Challenges include everything from the number of teachers and levels of education to the availability of facilities and equipment. Global research clearly shows that South Africa ranked in the bottom when it comes to maths and science education. Therefore, innovation in the South African context means finding new and different ways to reach learners; innovation means thinking outside of the box to bring learning to new communities, including those in the more rural inaccessible areas.”

Stephan said, “Globally, the Fourth Industrial Revolution prepares us for a new and different way of working. The way we work will change. Our values, the way we live and communicate is changing. The pace of things has changed already.”

As far as some of the innovations that are needed to ensure that South Africa’s children receive the education they deserve, Stephan said, “Generally we need to ensure that the full range of available technology is deployed to areas, communities, schools and children across South Africa. In summary, some of the innovations needed include high-speed connectivity, tablet/iPad devices, virtual reality devices and education software.”

According to Michael Wolf, the CEO of Formula D—an interactive experience design firm that seeks to make learning accessible and fun using interactive technologies and game design—the country needs to undergo a learning revolution to keep up with the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and improve the way young South Africans learn.

Wolf was speaking in September at the SA Innovation Summit 2018 where he delivered commentary to a panel that was examining the topic: Ed tech that works, building pragmatic innovations for SA’s wicked problems. “To tackle this systemic, multi-layered, wicked problem of education in South Africa, we need to generate societal consent around the value of education. If we manage to nurture a culture of learning in South Africa, we might be able to create enough momentum to shift our focus toward a better education system—a revised system supported by teachers, parents and policymakers,” Wolf said.

South Africa is ranked as one of the poorest performing nations in the world when it comes to maths and science. According to a report released by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) earlier this year, only 33% of matrics passed maths with a grade of 40% or higher and only 18.3% of government schools have science laboratories.

Of course, there are still many very real obstacles to technology-enabled education. Wolf said making use of informal learning space outside the school’s framework is essential and will provide a platform that helps to coach kids on how to best understand these complex subjects. Alternative learning spaces include community libraries, science centres and museums, which can easily substitute deficiencies in the formal education sector.

According to a statistic provided by the World Economic Forum, 65% of today’s primary school children will be working in jobs that do not exist yet. Advanced technology, while presenting the challenge of preparing children for an unknown future, also presents opportunities for their development that have never existed before, such as robotics and virtual reality.

For many, this future will require hard skills like coding and programming. However, with technology developing at its current speed, they will all need to be able to figure out how technology works without a manual, said Patricia Gouws, a Senior Lecturer at the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET) at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

It is for this reason that CSET is teaching children robotics by giving them the opportunity to build and code robots themselves. This not only teaches them about teamwork but it also teaches them engineering and programming principles. More importantly, they are trained to figure things out for themselves—learning through participation.

“We are preparing children to think and learn, and we are teaching them that programming is not difficult or scary,” said Gouws. This technology is not available to the average child yet, especially in previously disadvantaged communities.

“One challenge is accessibility: moving entire computer labs or virtual reality sets from school to school is no small feat. UNISA is solving this challenge by stocking a mobile unit that brings robotics to children who would otherwise not be able to participate. A second challenge is the cost of getting advanced technology into impoverished areas, which is why solutions like the virtual chemistry lab table are designed to be more affordable.

Meanwhile, in a world that is rapidly evolving and advancing technologically, the nurturing of skills is also paramount. Investing in both is critical to the advancement of individuals, communities and countries.

According to Jackie Carroll, the CEO and co-founder of Media Works, the leading provider of adult education and training (AET) in South Africa for over 22 years, “As the world marked International Literacy Day earlier this month on 8 September, there was reason to pause and reflect on the status of literacy in South Africa.” Carroll said, “If the numbers are anything to go by, (in as far as literacy is concerned) South Africa is in a better position than it has been in for some time. In the 15 years between 2002 and 2017, Stats SA reports that the percentage of people over the age of 20 who were regarded as functionally illiterate dropped from 28.5% to 13.7%.”

However, Carroll cautioned, “But this does not mean that young adults are adequately prepared for further learning or employment, or that they are equipped with the additional skills necessary for them to compete and succeed in the global economy.”

She explained, “The definition of “functional literacy” only indicates an education of Grade 7 or above, and not an individual’s ability to read and write at a level suitable to acquire and maintain a job. In fact, South Africa’s leading adult education and training (AET) institutions continue to supply literacy training at levels that are below Grade 9, and constantly have to create skills-related programmes.”

And South Africa is not alone, she added, “This tandem issue is a global phenomenon. It’s no mistake that the theme of International Literacy Day 2018 was Literacy and Skills Development. In order to find a place in society, get a job and respond to social, economic and environmental challenges, traditional literacy and numeracy skills are no longer enough; new skills, including in information and communication technology, are becoming increasingly necessary,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director General.

The skills required to succeed professionally include so-called soft skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively, work in a team and think critically, and the hard skills that require deliberate instruction and training. The latter ranges from basic computer skills, which are essential for most positions (or at least, for acquiring them), to anything from knowing how to weld to knowing how to code. Without these skills, doors remain closed to prospective employees.

Said Carroll, “This places additional pressure on educational institutions (including AET entities), non-governmental organisations and businesses to properly train and skill their learners, students, beneficiaries and employees. In order to be successful, this task has to be undertaken collectively and in as innovative and integrated a way as possible.”

Speaking of the importance of an innovative and integrated approach to learning, Carroll said, “As technology makes demands on literacy and skills development, perhaps the best solution is to use technology to improve the way we learn and teach.

“If used effectively, educational and skills development programmes based on technology have the capacity to access learners across all levels, subjects and geographic locations. They also provide a consistent level in the quality of instruction, and are not dependent on the qualifications and abilities of facilitators, which inevitably vary.”

As this way of thinking gains momentum, programmes are being developed that make learning interesting, engaging and relevant in a technologically driven and demanding world. The most effective literacy and skills development programmes are using a combination of high-quality computer- and paper-based course material, disseminated through a variety of media.

For example, Media Works’ newly launched Accelerate Pro programme uses textbooks, which contain QR codes, to provide learners with access to short multimedia lessons via their mobile phones. A first for South Africa, these ‘bubbles’, as they are called, explain complicated concepts and offer practical examples, thereby facilitating learning and improving understanding.

In order to be meaningful and beneficial, learning programmes need to integrate innovative technological tools. Such approaches have the capacity not only to improve the fundamentals of literacy, but also to teach a wide variety of skills too.

Carroll believes, “Perhaps, the first step to transforming literacy and learning in South Africa is enhancing the collective understanding that learning is a lifelong activity. It is facilitated by a variety of actors and influences, programmes and opportunities, and needs to remain a constant strategic priority for all parties committed to sustained progress.”

“Preparing young people and adults for jobs, the majority of which have not yet been invented, is a challenge,” added Azoulay. “Accessing lifelong learning, taking advantage of pathways between different forms of training, and benefiting from greater opportunities for mobility has thus become indispensable.”

Effective literacy and skills development programmes require perseverance and continuous adaptation. Embracing this concept is the cornerstone of development.

That education and innovation go hand in hand is plain to see, however, there are those who would argue that while much needs to change, a difference is required not only in what is taught, but also in how it is taught.

One such person is Carmen Di Rito, the co-founder and Chief Development Officer at LifeCo UnLtd SA. A Wits graduate with an Honours degree in Adult Education, she established LifeCo UnLtd SA with Pat Pillai 21 years ago in a backyard garage with a handful of students determined to change the mindsets and the narrative of previously disadvantaged black youths.

For the last 20 years LifeCo UnLtd SA, has worked to develop and refine what they call “a humanising conscientising methodology—with the aim of developing identity and self-reliance in children and young adults”. Di Rito said, “Get that right, and the foundations are set for life. To be fully human, to recognise the humanity in others and to be critically conscious is the framework upon which to develop the academic competencies.”

She explained, “As young teachers, we were inspired by thinkers and practitioners like [Steve] Biko, [Paulo] Freire, [Jean] Lave and [Frantz] Fanon. Our contention, as teachers, has been that education and learning should actively embrace diversity, foster curiosity and unleash creativity. Instead of driving compliance and instilling a culture of standardisation, we should be awakening purpose and passion in our learners.”

Di Rito said, “Twenty years ago, we recognised that South African education should have a critical responsibility in humanising a generation born of the ashes of a tortured past and a deeply wounded, often dehumanised society.”

She concluded, “Sadly, in many ways, our education system has failed to recognise that education is not a mechanical, industrial process.

“Meaningful education is a fundamentally human system. It’s a system that creates an environment where curiosity and creativity can flourish; an environment that recognises the value of passionate, purpose-aligned teaching professionals, who can create a climate of possibility.” 

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