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1 October 2014 14:02 (South Africa)
South Africa

SA’s broken education system – Diepsloot's Khan Academy may have an answer

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa
mainpic-diepsloot.jpg

On the edges of one of Johannesburg’s densest urban settlements you’ll find the Diepsloot Community Centre, a non-governmental initiative where locals can learn anything from welding to computer literacy. Unlike other community centres fraught by political infighting, this centre’s a hive of entrepreneurial and education success stories. One of these is the experimental Khan Maths initiative that’s having a big, positive effect on Diepsloot learners. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Fourteen-year-old Rhoda Chitegha, a grade 9 pupil from Diepsloot north of Johannesburg, was struggling to pass maths until she discovered a small Khan Academy maths class at her local community centre.

“I didn’t understand most of the concepts in maths and that is why it was hard for me. There are about 44 children in my maths class in Diepsloot and you don’t always get a lot of time with the teacher, but since I have come here (to the Khan Maths project at the Diepsloot community centre), maths has become fun and I have learnt so many more things than I knew before. It is easy to enjoy maths here. There are videos to watch and people who will help you,” says Chitegha, during a break from her course.

The Khan Maths project operates from a connected computer room in a community centre on the outskirts of what is one of Johannesburg’s most densely populated urban settlements. The maths initiative started in April 2012 as something of an experiment, as an education layer built onto the Siyakhula Computer School, which teaches computer and internet literacy to Diepsloot residents. For a nominal fee that’s both affordable and enough to create a sustainable small business for a couple of local entrepreneurs, interested people can learn how to use Microsoft Office products like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Photo: Christine Ngwenya

Photo: Christine Ngwenya says her understanding of maths has improved greatly, thanks to the Khan Maths project at Diepsloot, and that her grades have improved as well.

The computer school is a Siyakhula Education Foundation project, a non-profit born out of the belief that by empowering people, poverty can be eradicated. A year ago the foundation kicked off a six-month experiment to see if free online learning solutions could change education outcomes in previously disadvantaged communities.

Forty-eight Grade 8 learners from Diepsloot enrolled in the pioneering maths project and twenty-nine completed the full six-month programme, increasing their averages by 22% when compared with pre-project assessments. Students were given basic internet and computer literacy because many, like Chitegha, had never been on the internet before.

“Basically what we did was to take the Khan Maths curriculum, and then got some teachers from St David’s to contextualise the material as far as possible so that it is locally relevant,” says Andrew Barrett, a serial social entrepreneur with a major in philosophy, who has helped set up more than one successful community teaching initiative.

Barrett was involved with Ikamva Youth, an education and e-literacy endeavour that helps older (Grade 9 to 12) public school learners radically improve their marks so that they might gain access to tertiary education. Currently only some 10% of SA youth gain access higher education, SA Institute of Race Relations figures show. This can, in part, be attributed to the dual, unequal public schooling system that pervades this country. (Read A school journey into Eastern Cape's darkest heart in Daily Maverick for more insight into SA’s two disparate public school systems.)

Ikamva is now a well-run, sustainable organisation, which is why Barrett moved on to see what free online tools communities can harness to improve education outcomes. The pilot project with Khan Maths is the first of these ‘experiments’ that will eventually be housed in a separate online learning community project called Olico.

Photo: Andrew Barrett

Photo: Andrew Barrett of the Siyakhula Education Foundation watches children from Diepsloot tackling their maths problems and interacting with Khan Academy courseware online.

As a point of departure, a baseline maths assessment was developed by the St David’s teachers involved in the project. When evaluating learners from Diepsloot it was discovered that they are some 18 to 32% behind their peers at St David’s.

“Many of the children experienced a very pedagogical approach to learning maths, which has meant rote counting and multiplication rather than integrating mental arithmetic,” says Barrett. “This is a major barrier to getting learners to grasp maths concepts,” he adds.

“This isn’t a concern that’s unique to Diepsloot, but is part of a wider problem. When I’m in conversation with schools in townships in Cape Town or Thokoza, it’s the same issue. It is basically a legacy of the Apartheid system and what it did to primary school education,” Barrett explains.

“The problem with many public schools, which tend to be overcrowded, is that teachers must move on with lessons and can’t backtrack for students who can’t keep up or who have learning gaps,” he says. It is early days in the experiment yet, but the Khan Maths project appears to be filling learning gaps for Diepsloot learners with its fun, participative afternoon supplementation.

Something of a global education phenomenon, the Khan Academy is an online, open source teaching system built off a vision to provide anyone, anywhere with a free world-class education. Founded by a former hedge fund analyst called (Sir) Salman Khan, the web learning system that includes over 4,100 teaching videos was borne when Khan was trying to help his cousin with maths.

The MIT and Harvard graduate was tutoring his cousin maths remotely, using Yahoo!'s Doodle notepad for the lessons, but soon relatives heard what was going on and wanted in. “The rest of the family heard there was free tutoring," Khan tells the Guardian, explaining that soon even more relatives wanted to be included, and the demands on his tutoring time started getting out of hand.

A friend of Khan’s suggested that he start filming the tutorials and placing them on YouTube, which meant they could be accessed anywhere and at any time by his family members, or anyone else that was interested. “I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him,” Khan says on the academy’s site.

The YouTube site went live in November 2006, and today has close on a million subscribers, while the most popular videos are on basic addition (1,78 million views); simple equations (1,42 million views); and the beauty of algebra (over 800,000 views). Khan’s 2011 TED talk on using video to reinvent education has some 2,32 million views.

The Khan Academy video catalogue has expanded in recent years and now includes video and courseware on the sciences, including chemistry, physics and biology as well as some videos on finance and history. The approach is to chink learning material into video bits of about 10 minutes which can be viewed online.

What differentiates the approach is the courseware that accompanies the videos. There is a series of exercises the learners do after watching the videos to assess understanding of the concepts taught. Participants input answers to questions, and there’s a back-end interface where teachers or overseers view reports that display how the students are coping.

Barrett shows Daily Maverick the reporting function which has charts to track learner progress, and which enables tutors to quickly realise what concepts or equations or sets of problems maths pupils may be struggling with. This admin-type function is very granular and enables a macro- and micro-type view of progress. In addition to the back-end function, the online programme has hints and tips built in to nudge users along.

The idea is that a Khan Academy could operate anywhere – all that’s needed is a computer and an internet connection. A caring overseer with education experience is a bonus, but not a pre-requisite to progressing through the course.

At the Diepsloot community centre, students from the University of Johannesburg volunteer to assist with the schoolchildren, and are on hand to nudge the children along the Khan Maths course that has been tailored for the SA environment. “What’s remarkable about Khan Maths is that there is very little extrinsic motivation – the motivation is mostly intrinsic, which means that the children here are very self-motivated,” says Barrett.

There is a nominal charge for the tutoring – the cost is R50 per month for the after-school course, but Barrett says this hasn’t proved a barrier to entry. “What’s been important to us is to make this programme both sustainable and affordable, so that it can be replicated across the country,” says Barrett, who adds in this way it creates viable education supplementation, but also creates a computer literacy business for community entrepreneurs.

The programme has piqued the interest of Lynn Bowie, a lecturer at Wits University with interest in primary and secondary level maths. Currently studying for her PhD, Bowie teaches the teachers, and has committed her time to help developing the project. Part of a larger ‘open source community’ of educators, Bowie is helping teachers to create localised worksheets that are linked to the Khan Maths programme.

“What we’re looking at is using the Khan methodology to supplement the local curriculum as a means of developing a pathway for children to more easily close the learning gaps that they might have - gaps that could prove an impediment to their progress,” says Bowie. “Basically we’re looking at the different modules like algebra or arithmetic and then seeing how we can create these pathways so that students aren’t left behind in high schools like the one in Diepsloot,” she says.

For the children at the Diepsloot community centre, the programme has proved a triumph and hopefully could contribute to stimulating greater interest in, and success with that all-important subject, maths.

“My dream is to be a scientist because I am so curious about the world, I want to know everything,” says Christine Ngwenya, who is in Grade 9 and spends her afternoons at the Khan programme at the township’s community centre. “Because I want to be a scientist, maths is very important to me, but in primary school my maths marks were very irregular,” the teen admits.

“I kept dropping and going up in my marks. When I went to high school, my marks weren’t that good at all. I didn’t understand some of the maths that we were being taught, even as the teacher was talking. I heard the teacher but understanding the concepts he was teaching us wasn’t that easy,” the learner tells Daily Maverick, explaining that in class her maths teacher spends a fair amount of time getting learners to participate and try follow the curriculum.

“The teacher tends to draw attention to those who do not want to participate. Even if you want to participate but you don’t have the right answer, the teacher has his hands full trying to get the class to participate,” she says, and then describes her experience at the local Khan Maths classes as “adrenalin-pumping”.

“When I first came here I didn’t know about most of these maths things and concepts. It is great here because if you have a problem there is so much support, so you can ask and people take their time to explain things to you. And then there are the videos that we can watch, so everything gets explained which means I get to understand and the problems I have get sorted out straight away,” Ngwenya says.

“I love science – one day I want to fly in a space rocket so that I can see more than I have ever seen before,” she adds. Ngwenya has a bold dream, but thanks to this supplementary maths programme at the Diepsloot community centre, she has a much better chance of being eligible for tertiary education - and getting close to realising her dream. DM

Read more:

  • Khan Academy: The man who wants to teach the world at The Telegraph
  • Khan Academy founder on the future of teaching – Guardian video
  • This simple Khan Academy interface hack improved learning by 5% at Fast Company
  • Find Khan Academy at YouTube
  • Siyakhula Education Foundation online
  • Salman Khan: Let's use video to reinvent education at TED

Main photo: Diepsloot children at the Khan Maths project initiated by Siyakhula Education Foundation at the local community centre.

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa


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