The weakest link

This article appeared in Issue 12 of Khanya – Education through Technology – 2008

During 2007, a number of thing happened which compel one to consider the quality of education available to learners.

The teacher strike that took place in the middle of the year gave rise to fears that it could have a negative impact on matric pass rates. The Western Cape once again came out tops with a pass rate of over 80%. One is concerned, however, about the 20% who did not make it, and the quality of passes must also be considered very carefully.

A news item that really put the cat among the pigeons was the report that South Africa is at the bottom of the pile with regards to literacy and numeracy skills of learners. That is a serious indictment of our education system.

The Western Cape Education Department is pulling out all the stops to address these grave issues: various programmes have been launched to address literacy and numeracy from the foundation phase up, and to improve the quality of matric passes.
The important question that is put before Khanya is: what role can technology play to support these different interventions? A quarter of a billion Rand has already been spent over the past seven years to provide technology to over 800 schools – by now one would expect a return on that investment in terms of improved teaching and learning.
Results show that in many schools, technology does have a very positive impact on learner performance. Yet in some schools, this beneficial effect is not observed. What seems to be the problem?

In order to answer this question, one must consider what is involved in making technology available in schools, and then identify the problem area.

Since the schools were not built to have computer facilities, it is necessary to prepare a safe and secure environment to house the equipment; this includes an adequate electricity supply, ventilation, furnishings and protection against crime. Khanya has managed to get this part of the task down to a fine art. Including the 200 schools that are currently being prepared, experience has been gained through more than 1000 installations. A cost-effective model – as well as an implementation methodology – has been developed, which is internationally ranked as best practice.

The same good things can be said about the technology that is being used. In conjunction with the Centre for E-innovation, a technology specification evolved – not cutting-edge stuff, yet ultramodern equipment that is both affordable and durable.
It is interesting to note that equipment that was installed seven years ago is still in operation today. The selection of appropriate educational software is steady, and this means that the current technology offering to schools is sound.

It is clear that the difficulty does not lie with the provisioning of infrastructure, hardware and software. One has to look further to find the root of the problem.

After implementation, the teachers need to be trained to use the technology, a process that seems to be going well. Educators are put on a basic IT training course that helps familiarize them with computers. Most teachers embrace technology as a productivity tool with ease; soon they do their test papers and class notes with a word processor and maintain class marks on an electronic spread sheet. Many start using e-mail to communicate, and the internet to gather information.

However, in some instances, the teachers who gladly use computer technology for their own productivity are loath to harness it as a teaching tool.

The reluctance on the part of disinclined teachers, who keep learners out of the computer facility, is an obvious weak link in the Khanya chain. It is clear that the Khanya team has a lot of work to do in this regard; teachers must not only be taught how to use computers, but also how to use them as teaching tools, however labour-intensive. I must hasten to add that this unwillingness is not present with all teachers; in some of our schools, educators are doing innovative work with technology to improve their own teaching, and to improve the experience of learners. It would be ideal if this pattern were observed in all schools.

Perhaps an even weaker link is the lack of leadership on the side of principals. In those schools where technology is used optimally, there is, without exception, a strong leader who values the contribution that technology can make. In schools where teachers are allowed to keep the learners away from the facilities, such leadership is lacking. This is another area where Khanya has to make a greater contribution: helping principals to understand the value of the technology in their schools.

What does one do with a weak link? To ignore it, could break the chain. We also cannot afford to remove any of our links at present. The only alternative is to strengthen them.
Khanya is committed to the strengthening of educator and principal links in the year that lies ahead.

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