Technology and education must work together

| September 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Masennya Dikotla

Integrating computers into the learning process creates a virtuous cycle, helping pupils gain vital skills as well as preparing them for the information economy.

We live in a digital age in which most work is increasingly enabled by computing devices – computers, smartphones, tablets and a variety of function-specific devices such as, for example, the handheld devices a meter reader uses to input your household data. Without the ability to use these devices, children will be condemned to lowpaid – and insecure – manual work.

Need for literacy paramount

Using these devices is not enough. In what has become an information economy, people need to be able to work with the information on these devices. That ability begins with literacy. Without the ability to read, people are at an automatic disadvantage in daily life and, again, better paid work opportunities will be closed to them.

Despite the fact that we spend around 5.3% of the gross domestic product on education – one of the highest rates of public investment in the world – 18% of South African adults are functionally illiterate. Many more, one suspects, are not literate enough to succeed in the information economy.1

Molteno Institute focuses on African children

The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy was founded to tackle just this issue, with a particular focus on the challenges faced by African children for whom English is a second or third language. We found that pupils are failing to read in English because they are failing to read in their mother tongue. We adapted the British Breakthrough to Literacy programme into isiXhosa, and the results have been startling.

What we are currently using is computer-based learning to tackle the dual challenges of literacy in English and the mother tongue – and, incidentally, to give basic computer training as well. This creates a virtuous cycle, in which one positive result leads to another. Thus, bringing computers into the classroom early on motivates pupils by creating a sense of excitement – their very presence can be a catalyst to encourage deeper interaction and learning. In so doing, we also establish computers as an integral part of the way that children learn.

Bridges to the Future pilots in Limpopo

We call this programme the Bridges to the Future Initiative (BFI), which has been piloted with great success in Limpopo in Venda, Tsonga, Sepedi and English. The first step is for our trainers to visit a school and train the teachers – we find that many of them are not computer-literate. Once that training is complete, we train the teachers in the use of software itself. This custom-developed programme will provide the instruction for the pupils, two children to a computer. The first module teaches the children basic computer skills: mouse use, clicking and so on. We find this takes a month. Thereafter, the programme begins with hand/eye coordination and the use of the pen. The computer programme does the instruction, while the pupils practise the writing in their exercise books.

The programme then takes pupils through the letters of the alphabet, words, syllables and sounds and so on. We advise the teachers to begin with the mother tongue, in line with our philosophy as indicated above. English then goes much quicker because it builds on the same skills.

Our trainers periodically revisit each school to check on progress and assist with any technical issues.

Lack of funding temporarily halts crucial research, but evidence on the ground compelling A common challenge at this stage is dyslexia, and we have included a module that is very helpful for pupils. We use a graphic of a hand to show the pupil how to make the movement required for a letter, coupled with a sound. While we have not been able to do any research to quantify results, word from our trainers is that this ability to keep on checking how to make the hand movements is extremely beneficial.

Lack of funds has also prevented us from doing research into quantifying the overall efficacy of the programme. However, as Seipati Machoga, one of our Limpopo training coordinators, says: “This method is very successful. Children learn best when they are having fun, and this interactive way of learning is great fun!”

We have certainly found that children make extremely fast progress with both elements of the training – literacy and computer literacy. They are certainly now well prepared to receive instruction via computers, which opens up a vast range of resources not usually accessible at a rural school.

Another measure of success is that the Department of Education is eager for us to work with more schools, when we have the funds to do so. Based on our success in Limpopo, we will be taking the BFI to the Northern Cape in Setswana and English in 2012. One obvious challenge is that many schools don’t have access to computers.

Technology also for teachers

Technology can also be used to open up resources for teachers. Connected computers and, increasingly, smartphones, allow teachers to access new reference sources and to connect with their peers. Teachers – particularly in rural areas – can be very isolated professionally.

To help overcome that sense of isolation, and also to create another kind of virtuous cycle, the Molteno Institute has created a Facebook page. The idea is to give teachers a platform to ask questions and share best practices. Many of these teachers don’t have the means to access the site and are intimidated by it – we have begun to train them in using it as part of the BFI programme.

The Facebook initiative is very much in its infancy, so it’s a question of ‘watch this space’ at the moment. Aside from teachers’ unfamiliarity with the technology, a major challenge is that too few of them have smartphones.

This challenge mirrors the wider one of ensuring our schools have consistent access to technology. It has a big role to play in preparing children for the digitised workplace, and to help them get educated. That means getting the technology in place, and also training the teachers adequately. We have begun the process but, of course, it can only be done by creating the right kind of partnership: government creates the policy framework, NGOs provide the hands-on skills and business helps with the finance. With that in place, we could achieve miracles!

Reference:

1. Figures from Brand South Africa’s SouthAfrica.info website, available at: http://www.southafrica.info/about/education/education.htm.

Category: e-Education, Spring 2012

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