In the pre-Covid era, literacy mainly referred to reading and writing skills. However, the pandemic and subsequent need for distance learning have emphasised how crucial digital skills are for pupils and students to succeed. These skills are also indispensable in a digitally transformed workplace and society. Unsurprisingly, they are now recognised as part of the 21st-century literacy skills set. Just as traditional literacy skills should ideally be taught from a very young age to ensure fluency, pupils should be equipped with digital skills as early as possible.
The real question is: how can this be achieved in a country dealing with so many different challenges simultaneously? In celebration of 2021’s International Literacy Day on 8 September, I would like to focus on an intervention in the Breede River Valley near Worcester in the Western Cape where farmworker children are being taught digital skills in farm schools.
The idea of obtaining digital skills was far removed from the lived experiences of these kids. However, an educational funding trust, the Stellenbosch University Centre for Pedagogy and the Western Cape education department joined forces to make the impossible possible.
Back in 2016, the three entities agreed to establish a LitNum Hub among the six very diverse Breede River primary schools to strengthen literacy and numeracy skills in this educational cluster. The centre was responsible for running the supplementary educational programme. The format was largely one of face-to-face tutoring, but soon virtual classes were included to increase the contact with the pupils. By adding technology for teaching and learning, the LitNum Hub became the Breede Digi Cluster.
When, because of the lockdown in 2020, it became impossible to have face-to-face sessions, the centre’s team realised it had to find another way to continue the support of pupils in rural, predominantly Afrikaans-speaking areas. The manager of the programme, Danelda van Graan, recognised that these pupils needed digital devices and e-learning material suited for their context. Their teachers would also have to be equipped with the necessary digital pedagogical skills. Hence, the Breede Digi Cluster shifted gears in an attempt to narrow the digital divide while promoting literacy and numeracy skills.
The risk with any digital intervention is that it ends up being a project where tablets, loaded with apps, are dumped at schools and teachers receive training for an hour or two before being left on their own. The Breede Digi Cluster project, however, is a holistic, out-of-the-box digital skills intervention that aims to become self-sustainable, so that many generations of young minds can benefit.
Centre for Pedagogy team member and cluster educator Candice Zandberg coordinates the roll-out in the schools to establish a digital collaborating cluster where the teachers can support one another. The schools range from multigrade facilities in very small, basic school buildings, to slightly larger single-grade schools and one state-of-the-art, green, technological campus.
The latter is fully fitted with e-Beams in every classroom and regarded as the hub of the cluster. It is also often used for teacher training sessions.
Each of the five other schools is fitted with at least one electronic whiteboard. Schools in the cluster were given tablets for all pupils in grades 4 to 7, along with a trolley-based charging station for each class. Adequate internet access allows optimum use of the tablets.
Teachers receive regular training to incrementally improve their digital technical and pedagogical skills. They are then required to implement their new skills in the classroom, with Zandberg offering support where needed. Teachers are also guided to individually develop interactive learning resources. These resources are then added to a Google platform, providing a resource bank for all six schools.
Pupil-centred teaching has thus become more than a theoretical discussion in meetings, but a real-world project. By joining their teacher at the electronic whiteboard, pupils can learn about antonyms while slaying a dragon. The Grade 1s can use their fingers to make big letters in bright colours, staring in awe that no paint ended up on their hands.
Where online apps or PowerPoint presentations are lacking, teachers have jumped at the opportunity to create digital material in the pupils’ home language. As an assessment tool, teachers use the whiteboard for short content quizzes. An added benefit of the online platform is that teachers with comorbidities can teach from home by live-streaming.
In a multigrade class environment, exclusion often takes place. By using the tablets with apps for learning literacy and numeracy skills in fun, levelled games, all pupils can learn simultaneously. There is no more need for them to keep busy with boring homework while the teacher focuses on another group.
Gradually pupils in this rural area are becoming more proficient in the use of digital devices and soon they will not shy away from technology, but see it as an everyday tool. This is the power of a proper digital pedagogy in the classroom. For these six farm schools, digital skills are changing lives and futures.
Given its success in the Breede River Valley, could this intervention be expanded to other rural areas in South Africa? Definitely. If more private companies or trusts are willing to invest their corporate social responsibility funds in similar projects, this model could certainly be rolled out nationally. By creating rural Digi Clusters, the opportunity arises to create Digi Network Schools across the country. This will give every child the chance to gain solid literacy and digital skills and not just the privileged few.
If you are a corporate social investment manager reading this, here is your chance to help bring about real change in South Africa. Help us create a society that is digitally literate for the 21st century and beyond. DM