How much technology do schools need?
Schools might feel the need to invest in the latest technology, but they should be careful before they do so, advises FIONA WALLACE.
Some readers may remember the first computer labs in South African schools: the heady days of DOS commands, floppy disks and IBM’s Writing Assistant.
That was a time when computer literacy was first introduced as a general subject, and teachers were petrified of attempting anything more than Hangman, Solitaire and Encarta with their classes.
Those were the days when you really could lose all of the work you had painstakingly typed up over four hours, just by hitting the wrong key.
Wikipedia, Google, smartphones, SD cards, WhatsApp, interactive screens, the Cloud—all of these were things of the distant future, unimaginable in the 1990s world.
It is difficult to believe that the first Apple iPad was released only on April 3, 2010—just six years ago—and that, in the last decade or so, many new words that have been introduced into daily English usage are linked to our interactions with technology.
The American Dialect Society recognises the following “words of the year”: web (1990), e- (as in e-mail, 1998), tweet (2009), app (2010), hashtag (2012).
Just six years since the iPad was launched, South Africa already boasts schools that have integrated tablets fully into their teaching and learning.
But let’s be realistic. Many schools have virtually no computer technology at all.
In the typical South African school we are likely to find a landline phone (but not necessarily), a printer, possibly a standalone PC for administration, and, if the school is fortunate, a mobile digital projector and laptop, shared by a number of teachers.
While many teachers may no longer be able to envisage calculating end-of-term results or completing promotion schedules by hand, “new” 21st-century technology remains inaccessible for a substantial number of the 26500 schools in our country. It is a sad truth that the imbalances in our schooling system are massive. Those who can afford it have access to schools that have integrated technology into a much-sought-after “paperless” ecosystem. Those who have few resources are forced to make do with schools without stable electricity or even basic amenities.
It seems as if the rift in what is known as the “digital divide” between rich and poor grows wider every day.
However, technology also has the innate capacity to enable schools to narrow the inequality gap in a relatively short space of time.
A satellite Internet connection can bring the world’s best libraries to a school located in one of our remotest areas. An intelligent bulk-messaging system can instantly interconnect teachers to parents who have access to only a bottom-of-the-range cellphone. One trolley of 40 laptops or tablets can radically change classroom practice and teaching strategies, if introduced with care and foresight.
The pressure to introduce an information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem into all schools is real, and can no longer be avoided by schools.
However, for many school leaders and educators, this is an exceptionally daunting prospect, filled with unknowns and deep fears.
The hard truth is that ICT is disruptive, it is expensive and it can be exceptionally distracting from the core business of a school: teaching and learning.
The “ICT journey” is complex and time-consuming but, if tackled with insight, enthusiasm and the appropriate knowledge, it is truly worth the effort.
Those schools who work with the CoZa Cares Foundation are often puzzled that one of our first questions to them is: “Why do you want to introduce ICT into your school?” Answers range from “Because we must keep up with the times”, to “Our parents now demand it”, to even “The education department told us we had to”.
“Why are you embarking on this ICT journey? What do you hope to achieve?” are questions that are often not fully deliberated before a school invests scarce resources in the purchase of sometimes unnecessary or inappropriate hardware. (Beware the technology company knocking on the principal’s door, promising the silver bullet one-size-fits-all solution—every school is unique.) There is only one valid answer to the question: “We are introducing ICT into our school because we want to improve teaching and learning outcomes.”
No other answer will do. No other answer matters.
If the answer to the question is, “We aren’t sure”, our advice is: “Don’t start your ICT journey just yet. Delay the purchase of expensive devices and infrastructure until you are.”
Any sustainable ICT environment at school level requires exceptionally careful planning of a holistic intervention. There are a number of essential components of any successful intervention. However, core to sustainability is visionary school leadership.
This is not a role that can be delegated to a young, techno-savvy staff member.
The ICT journey requires people to change their attitudes, entrenched behaviours and traditional teaching strategies.
Change is messy and disruptive, and must be managed with sensitivity and forethought.
Only a visionary leader, backed by a supportive and empowered team, will be able to manage this change effectively.
The CoZa Cares Foundation is an education consultancy based in Johannesburg specialising in information technology in schools.