Inside Government: The endless possibilities of eLearning
Inside Government is a newsletter written by Premier Helen Zille.
The endless possibilities of eLearning
This week we launched our Education ePortal that has the potential to revolutionise teaching and learning.
Our launch happened in the same week the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) told Education Minister Angie Motshekga they would not administer the Annual National Assessments to learners this week.
As a result, the literacy and numeracy tests, which more than 8 million pupils were due to start tomorrow, have been postponed till February next year, disrupting the school timetable to suit SADTU’s agenda. This prompted Justice Malala, the well-known television host and columnist, to tweet “SADTU is the worst thing to ever happen to a black child.”
SADTU members may be unconcerned about meeting the set benchmarks, because many of them enrol their own children in former Model C schools, where teachers will do whatever it takes to ensure learners become literate and numerate.
The biggest challenge in education is what we can do about the millions of children “left behind”. The history of our democracy is marked by false starts and dead ends in the myriad attempts to find solutions.
Increasingly, the future of education will involve harnessing technology, which could help resolve many of the hitherto insoluble crises we have faced. Of course, this is not a given. But it is already happening in middle-class schools. If we fail to provide the same access to poor children, they will merely fall further and further behind.
If used correctly, eLearning can be a game changer. Our vision is to use technology to enable every child and every educator, anywhere, to access the best learning material, the best teachers, and the best teaching methods. Our ePortal seeks to make this possible by providing a customised “search engine” which brings every useful educational resource together in a well-designed website, driven by the needs of all stakeholders in education. They include teachers, learners, parents, leadership teams, school governing bodies, school suppliers, departmental officials and many more.
We know that there are thousands of resources “out there” (ranging from e-books, to videos, PowerPoint presentations and administrative packages) either already in use, or undergoing development. They are being produced by individual teachers and schools; by departmental officials, NGOs, social enterprises, and businesses. The challenge is to give everyone access to them, by encouraging all education entrepreneurs to upload their material onto the site. They can offer their products free, or for a fee.
Our ePortal will provide a minimal filter to ensure appropriate content that is aligned to the South African curriculum. But the purpose is to open access, to encourage everyone to upload material they believe can benefit others, and promote competition between products, leading to continuously improved offerings. We have also included a “rating system” to enable the ePortal’s users to measure the usefulness and value of various products and resources, as a guide to others.
We want to bridge the digital divide by ensuring that all teachers can access the best materials and methods, and that learners can reach the best teachers. We want it to be possible to administer, write and mark assignments online; we want learners to have the best possible revision material to prepare for exams; we want education policies to be discussed and disseminated, and “best practice” to be shared. We want programmes that help schools “pace themselves” to complete the syllabus on time in each class every year. We want parents to be able to see what benchmarks their children should be achieving. And best of all, the potential of using technology to enhance the learning experience of children with disabilities, borders on the miraculous. The possibilities are endless.
Although the site could help compensate for lazy or incompetent teachers, and assist parents, it will certainly not replace the role of a committed teacher and dedicated parent in the education process. We are extremely grateful that there are so many hard-working teachers and caring parents in our poorest schools, who want to do the best they can for their children. They stand to benefit the most, because they deserve all the support they can get.
Our greatest challenge is to ensure affordable access. The biggest barrier to this is the cost of a “smart” device and connectivity.
That is why the Western Cape government has budgeted R2-billion over ten years to ensure that every school in the Province has access to high-speed, reliable, free broadband connectivity. If our roll-out goes according to plan, every Western Cape school should be connected to the internet by the end of next year – with access speeds starting at 100 Megs per second for large schools.
By that time, most of the province’s 36 000 teachers will have been trained to use technology optimally in the education process. Teachers are voluntarily flocking to our training programmes offered at the Provincial Government’s “Teaching and Leadership Institute”. “Smart classrooms” complete with connected, interactive white boards and projectors are being installed in a growing number of schools.
But the major affordability challenge, at present, is to ensure that every teacher and learner has access to a “smart device” -- at least during school hours, and that the devices can be secured. We are researching international best practice to address both these challenges.
They have been addressed in other countries (for example through “tracking” and “blocking” mechanisms) and through innovative corporate social investment schemes. We have established the Cape Digital Foundation to help us raise the necessary funds with private sector partners with the aim of putting a sturdy, traceable device in the hands of every learner.
At present, the ePortal is a platform waiting to be “populated” with the right resources. There are many “landing pages” that are still without content. We know the content is out there, being developed by some of the best minds in education. Our role is to make it all available, in one user-friendly accessible education “ecosystem”.
Within a few months we hope that every “landing page” will provide links to useful content, which will develop and grow as technology becomes indispensable to the education enterprise.
A future of “endless possibilities” in education has arrived.