Technology has the potential to transform the education sector, but low digital literacy and a lack of internet-enabled devices hamper online participation. The pandemic has underscored basic inequality in the education sector: while distance learning and virtual classrooms have become the norm for learners with PCs, tablets and smart phones, there is an opportunity cost for learners who are not digitally enabled.
On 30 September, the second wave of the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM) indicated that learners in South Africa will have lost 40% of school days in 2020 because of the pandemic.
According to Project Isizwe, only 10% of South African homes had affordable fixed internet in 2019, and the country’s 7.5 million lower-income earners pay 80 times more for internet access than their better-off counterparts. Tim Genders, COO of Project Isizwe and Chair of the Wireless Access Providers Association, asserts that data is the raw material of education and the impact of data price discrimination will lead to even greater inequality in the future.
Rolling out fibre and fixed wireless technology to homes will bridge the gap to enable distance learning in the short term and ensure digital access for everyone at equitable cost. Rollout to 12 million homes over a decade would cost around R50 billion.
Support for learners with digital technology
With teaching and learning no longer confined to the four walls of a classroom, virtual learning became a reality for learners across the country. In terms of their Covid-19 Comprehensive Pupils Support package, the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and various partners undertook to provide educational support through integrated online and broadcast platforms. As disaster management legislation compelled radio and TV channels to increase their educational programming, this was an obvious choice to reach 13 million children in lockdown. Programming was rolled out on three SABC TV channels, and 13 radio stations, as well as a YouTube channel.
MultiChoice made its Mindset educational channel, Channel 319, available on DStv Catch Up. DStv also partnered with Africa Teen Geeks and the Sasol Foundation, rolling out South Africa’s first Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Lockdown Digital School with the help of government (virtual classes for pupils across all grades are recorded and posted on MsZora, an AI- based educational platform). KykNET introduced maths and science programmes for grade 8–12 learners through Klaskamer 10 (DStv Channel 145).
The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies zero-rated content and websites for the education sector, with the approval of the DBE and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). This included DBE and Provincial Education Departments (PEDs) websites, local websites (including commercial websites) offering free access to educational content resources, websites of educational institutions registered with the nine PEDs, and those of educational institutions accredited by Umalusi.
Vodacom saw a surge of registrations on its e-School platform. Prior to lockdown, the platform reached around 900 000 learners but an average of 90 000 new registrations over three months pushed the total number of registrations to 1 158 577 by the end of May. MTN, which assists grade 10, 11 and 12 students through the e-learning platform of the Siyavula Foundation, zero-rated more than 100 websites to assist learners.
Telkom introduced an online learning portal for primary and high-school learners available through the ed-tech platform Lightbulb Education (see case study on pages 186–187). ORT SA launched ORT2Connect the Unconnected, a drive to help learners cross the digital divide, and urged the public to donate devices they were no longer using. Project Isizwe implemented a programme where schools could register for the ‘No Child Left Behind’ programme and donors could ‘donate’ home Wi-Fi to the children of families living in low-income communities.
A comprehensive attempt to ‘save’ the school year has been commendable, yet Arthur Goldstuck, head of technology market research organisation World Wide Worx, says mobile network operators could have gone further to zero-rate all educational sites and services meeting the minimum requirements, like having an ac.za address.
Until there is greater parity in a deeply unequal sector, it will not be possible to redesign the curriculum to integrate digital processes into existing systems, which will become an eventual necessity for the future world of work. In the meantime, some companies are seeking possible solutions – information technology company EOH, a technology partner to the Solidarity Fund, is collaborating with risk management company Risk Insights to introduce a globally recognised digital education solution for the country. Their iON solution was originally developed to serve mass education needs in India.
Source details: Trialogue Business in Society Handbook 2020