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From the Inside: Catching the rising wave of educational technology

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

The EdTechXEurope conference in London brought home the extent to which education is a site of disruption in itself, currently being transformed in every conceivable way by technological innovation.

Reflecting on the many lessons learnt at the EdTechXEurope Conference in London last week, I was brought back to earth by an article in Business Day (Tuesday 27 June), whose headline announced: “There is a simple way to bring maths and science up to speed”.

If this were indeed so, the holy grail of education transformation would be within reach, so I paid close attention.

The article’s proposed solution to our maths and science education crisis is for government to facilitate short-term contracts for competent maths and science teachers from abroad to teach in our schools. “All that matters is that foreign teachers are screened for competence and suitability,” wrote Wilson Johwa, recalling happy memories of his own schooldays in Zimbabwe when he was taught by Mr Duly and Mr Rawson (from the UK and Ireland respectively) and Mr Jagarnath from India, who managed to unlock the magic of maths.

It was genuinely touching to read an article inspired by the belief that competence and ability still matter when teaching posts are filled in those parts of the education system that have been captured by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (and where our maths and science crisis is greatest). In many of the schools that SADTU regards as “theirs”, teaching posts are tradeable commodities, or rewards for political allegiance.

Re-introducing competence and ability as criteria for appointing teachers (whether local or foreign) in all South African schools would indeed be transformative, even revolutionary – but very far from “simple”.

Nevertheless, I agree with Johwa’s conclusion – unless we fix maths and science education in our schools, South African youngsters will not acquire the skills they need to become productive participants in a future economy characterised by technological disruption in every sphere of society.

But, even assuming SADTU would “allow” it, reverting to a teaching model that worked in the 1950s and ‘60s won’t cut it today.

The EdTechXEurope conference brought home the extent to which education is a site of disruption in itself, currently being transformed in every conceivable way by technological innovation. It is important to stress that technology cannot and will not replace competent, committed teachers. In fact, even as the technology revolution advances, there is a growing world-wide shortage of the type of teachers necessary to harness its full potential.

One of the most quoted statistics at the conference was the need to recruit and train 69-million excellent, tech-savvy teachers world-wide by 2030.

Attending a conference like this is simultaneously inspiring and depressing – you see what enormous potential there is, while trying to process the challenge of “landing” it in our context. The future classroom includes artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, not to mention a wide range of apps to address almost every conceivable educational challenge.

The highlight of the conference for me was meeting the young, passionate South Africans who are on the cutting edge of global ed-tech innovation. Many of them have remained in South Africa, precisely because they want to help address our education challenges. The evening spent with them, discussing their ideas and plans, was an education in itself.

However, it was sobering to learn about their experience of trying to work with public schools back home, which requires engaging with government that is battling to find a coherent way of taking on board the technological revolution in education. That is why the most successful EdTech interventions in South Africa are those that deal with all issues except the elephant in the room: excellent curriculum delivery in the classroom.

I processed their comments before I was due to speak at the conference.

My role was to give a keynote address on whether governments are capable of embracing the disruption in education brought about by new technologies. The invitation arose from the fact that the Western Cape government has been driving an “eLearning Game Changer” that is now into its third year of development and has attracted international attention.

My address, in a nutshell, explained why it is essential and possible (but extremely difficult) for governments in developing countries to create a context for EdTech disruption.

Essential, because we must keep up with independent institutions at home and educational institutions abroad that are emerging or reinventing themselves around technological innovation. The majority of indigent pupils in developing countries will remain dependent on state education for the foreseeable future. Unless governments ensure that technology is used as a ladder and leveller, we will end up with an unbridgeable canyon (let alone a digital divide).

Getting this right is extremely difficult, among other things because the state is naturally resistant to disruption of any kind. In fact, the laws and regulations that dictate how we must work are specifically designed to prevent disruption. The state does not know how to cope with a new idea, because there isn’t a regulation, or precedent, that tells us how to “land” it legally. What’s more, innovation requires a degree of risk, which is anathema in government. Risk implies possible failure, and forfeiting the “clean audit” that has become the holy grail of government.

But it is also extremely difficult for another reason. What is relatively easy to do on a limited scale (for example in a few schools only) is extremely difficult to do throughout a system as a whole. EdTech innovation is not merely a matter of ensuring internet connectivity and the acquisition of devices (as expensive and difficult as this already is).

To land EdTech innovation in our schools requires getting six things right – simultaneously, and at scale – across an entire system.

These six things are: e-Infrastructure; e-Technology; e-Culture, e-Content, e-Teachers and e-Administration. We have learnt that unless these six pillars are in place across the system, the transition will fail. Success requires excellent change management at every level, both within the department and in each school. This is why the Western Cape government spent three years planning this “game-changer”, and is only now moving into full implementation mode. Every step has been facilitated and monitored by our Delivery Support Unit and driven by the Department of Education and the Centre for e-Innovation.

By the end of the year, almost all schools will have high-speed broadband. Our 16 “model schools” will serve as a pilot group of schools with a full eLearning environment and all six pillars firmly established, including the full range of technological support devices for every teacher and every learner. We will also roll out pilot e-Content packages that will be comparatively evaluated for efficacy and outcomes. Our enhanced and universal schools will proceed more slowly as we bring every school up to speed over the next 10 years.

The component that worried me most was the transition to “e-Teachers” who have to take the lead in creating an “e-Culture” in their schools. I was pleasantly surprised. Educators in the Western Cape have, in the main, been enthused by the potential of technology to improve learner outcomes, and have attended, in large numbers, the training sessions organised during the holidays and over weekends. Our model schools are ready for lift-off. Change Management work being conducted with school leadership is providing key leaders in schools with resources to support their move into new behaviours and classroom management.

There is still a lot to worry about, though.

The first element is security. We have various innovative strategies in place to prevent the wholesale theft of devices, but what we did not anticipate was the extent to which our fibre optic cable would be dug up in some areas (despite the fact that it has no re-sale value). Getting that message across is proving to be a major challenge.

The second issue is the regulatory environment, which must be adapted to technological disruption and enable us to test new curriculum delivery and administrative systems. I learnt at EdTechXEurope of the extent to which this adaptation has happened internationally – to the point that governments actively encourage their emerging tech industries by identifying the most promising innovations, becoming their first customers, and supporting them to find international markets.

This model makes it possible for us, in South Africa, to use international EdTech products offered free of charge because the EdTech entrepreneurs who developed them are sponsored by their governments to enter international markets. They know they have to be internationally competitive early on in the game to be part of the fourth industrial revolution.

Our regulatory environment makes a similar approach all but impossible here at home. As a result, rather than encouraging local innovation, we become recipients of donated technology solutions, produced half a world away, that may or may not take account of South Africa’s challenges.

Our eLearning Game Changer could drive the development of the EdTech sector in the Western Cape, and in South Africa, as a springboard for education innovation in the rest of the continent. This is why I am determined to support the development on an incubator, pioneered by the Cape IT initiative, to support and pilot the most innovative EdTech solutions our creative young minds can produce. And then to scale those that work.

This is essential if Africa, (whose population is projected to reach 2.8-billion in 2050 – 60% of whom will be under 30) is to inherit a demographic dividend of young educated talent, rather than a demographic liability where hundreds of millions of angry young people are unemployable in a technology-driven knowledge economy.

Traversing this transition is not optional. We have to make it happen. Our eLearning Game Changer is a concerted effort to ensure that South Africa catches the rising EdTech wave, and isn’t left drowning in its wake. DM


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