Strategic use of technology will unlock potential of youthful population

The stars seem to be realigning to create a better environment to harness the power of technology to enhance efforts to transform our under-performing education and training system.

The government’s Draft White Paper on Science and Technology, once adopted and implemented, could accelerate inclusive economic growth, make our economy more competitive and improve people’s everyday lives. High quality education and training is the undisputed key to improving everyday lives of all citizens.

Last week I had the privilege to be exposed to exciting initiatives driven by young people across our continent at the 2018 e-Learning Africa Conference in Kigali, Rwanda. Initiatives included using e-Learning techniques to help women farmers to use mobile phones to get weather and market information in deep rural areas to improve the quality of their crops and negotiate better prices for their produce.

Exciting e-Learning is also being deployed to tackle adult education, including digital illiteracy in deep rural areas of our continent through context specific content to teach relevant words and numbers applicable in everyday lives of people.

Most captivating was how e-Learning is being deployed to transform teaching and learning environments and motivating both learners and teachers to strive for better outcomes in knowledge and skills.

For example, an innovative program, Quest Forward, of the Opportunities Education Foundation in Tanzania, is transforming secondary schooling. The program leader is a former high performing secondary school principal who had lost hope of significant change in the system. He is enthusiastically championing the program to enhance the quality of education in both public and private schools.

The Quest Forward program uses tablets software that has been designed to only support discovery-driven learning. Games and aimless surfing of the web are locked out. Teachers are retrained to become enthusiastic mentors instead of bored instructors. The system creates feedback loops to ensure self-evaluation by learners, complemented by regular feedback from peers and teacher mentors. Evaluation is focussed on progress and achievement, rather than tests and examinations.

In just over two years, participating schools, both private and public, have shown phenomenal progress. Participants have demonstrable shifts in mindsets, habits, digital and team skills that create value for their families, their communities and countries. Zanzibar and Ghana are next in line.

South Africa has all that is needed to leverage our high internet penetration (83%) to deploy context specific e-Learning in our schools, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, as well as work places. The Gauteng and Western Cape Education Departments seem to have laid strong foundations for this by deploying tablets to be at the forefront of effective e-Learning.

Experience shows that e-Learning works best where the process goes beyond online education content. Effective deployment of digital tools requires attention to design of content, enhancement of self-directed learning and classroom lay-out that promotes social peer learning and collaboration. The key is to make learning fun for both students and teachers. Students are encouraged to explore projects that are relevant to their home and community context.

Context specific e-Learning also creates opportunities for multi-media learning by adding podcasts with stories, songs, poems and other art forms to capture important themes. Worldwide experiences show that we learn best when we use more of our senses for problem solving, whilst having fun in the process.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s stimulus package presents a wonderful opportunity to design the planned schools and health facilities to maximise the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. New classrooms should be designed for 21st century digital learning and appropriate skill sets. There is no reason not to link our school and higher education system to WiFi fibre networks as successful nations like South Korea and Finland do.

Lowering our comparatively high data costs should be a priority. Of the top 6 biggest African markets, South Africa’s data prices are by far the most expensive – charging $7.60 per GB, compared to the second most expensive, Kenya, at $4.90 per GB. Why should South Africans pay more for MTN or Vodacom data than our neighbours? Why should citizens continue to subsidise these highly profitable companies? Stimulating our economy offers us an opportunity to remove the obstacles posed by these high data costs.

We have a chance to leverage technology to prepare our youthful population to gain the skills and mindsets required in the twenty first century. The Fourth Industrial Revolution need not lead to job losses. It needs to be harnessed to create new types of jobs such as programming and higher quality social services.

It is up to us to seize the opportunities offered by technology to transform our education and training system to make learning relevant and fun.

– Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.