The learners file into the classroom, sit down at their desks and reach into their backpacks. Instead of taking out notebooks, pens and textbooks, they whip out the latest generation, state-of-the-art computing devices in a “bring your own device” environment.
These tech-savvy students and this classroom are not situated in a school somewhere in Europe or the United States, but in a school in the bustling South African metropolis of Johannesburg. However, the school is a posh, private one, nestled in a leafy, affluent suburb.
And therein lies the problem, says Richard Firth, Chairman and CEO of MIP Holdings, a company that provides affordable business and IT solutions to the financial services industry in emerging markets. “As technology continues to increasingly invade all aspects of our daily lives, using and understanding basic computer literacy skills at school is becoming just as crucial as reading, writing and mathematics. Unfortunately, many government schools in South Africa don’t even have electricity, let alone computer labs or the funds to issue their students with school-sponsored laptops or tablets. Those schools also don’t have many – if any – learners whose parents can afford to buy them computing devices. This means that the digital divide, which already exists between the smartphone-toting wealthy and the poor, is rapidly growing ever wider.”
In fact, the state of affairs at many of South Africa’s government schools is so dismal they lack even basic infrastructure. Out of the country’s 24 793 public schools, 3 544 reportedly have no electricity, 2 402 have no water supply, 46% still use inadequate and unhygienic pit latrine toilets, 95% have no science laboratories, and a staggering 93% don’t even have libraries, according to the Department of Basic Education’s National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) Report, published in May 2011. And speaking of books, the country’s Department of Basic Education was embroiled in scandal when it, despite a budget of R22 billion ($2.6 billion), failed to provide any new textbooks to many of the country’s schools during the entire school year last year.
Late last year, the BBC reported that South Africa spends 6.1% of its GDP on education – which is more than many other countries – yet it fails to provide necessities such as books, and its results are among the worst in the entire world, with the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index ranking it at the bottom out of 133 countries in both maths and science education. On the reading front, it isn’t much better. In the 2006 Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study, it also scored at the bottom out of 40 countries.
While public schools deal with crumbling infrastructure and no books, some private schools are rolling out IT infrastructure and making it a requirement for their students to have some form of computers. “At the beginning of 2011, the Brescia House Girls’ School in Johannesburg informed parents it was becoming mandatory for the students to have computers, and Kingsmead College mandated iPads for students. Parents have to purchase these devices, starting at upwards of R5 000 each,” Firth says. “Computing devices are already being used at some other private schools – 180 private and government schools in South Africa are currently integrating iPads into their classes – and it will soon be as standard as stationery at all those schools, which will cause the educational inequality that already exists between the rich and the poor in this country to expand even further.”
Apart from making kids proficient in computing, using technology and applying what they have learned, Firth points out that electronic education holds other benefits too. “Keeping up with and being able to use new technology will make students more globally competitive when they enter the job market one day. But using tablets, laptops or netbooks also improves interactivity in class, as even the more timid students are encouraged to participate in class discussions. It also places vast amounts of information at kids’ fingertips since they are able to access eBooks and surf the Web,” Firth notes. “Unfortunately, recent figures show that only 23% of South African schools even have Internet access, which still shuts out way too many of the nation’s kids.”
Technology will also do away with the burden of having to lug around heavy and expensive physical textbooks. In February this year, an app was launched that offers access to more than 600 school textbooks on 33 different subjects in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages. The textbooks that are available via the app are all aligned with CAPS, the country’s new curriculum, and can be purchased for a minimum of 25% less expensive cost than the same physical book.
“It is heartbreaking to think that the wealthy will be privy to these discounts while many less fortunate students don’t even receive the physical textbooks,” Firth says. "The education crisis isn't one just for the government to sort out. Every South African citizen and company has a duty to find solutions. If you are a corporate decision-maker, make sure your corporate responsibility money is invested in the right place."