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SA education ripe for change

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An interesting revelation this week showed the extent of Google disruption of the print media in the US. Over the past few years, online ads have quickly grown past newspaper and magazine advertising to become the second largest ad medium behind television.

This is how the game has changed: in the first six months of 2012, Google raked in $20.8 billion (R185.5bn) in ad revenue, while the whole US print media (newspapers and magazines) generated $19.2bn from print advertising.

Google, a company founded 14 years ago, makes more money from advertising than an industry that has been around for more than a hundred years. The other industry that is feeling the pinch is the music industry, where CD sales have plummeted in favour of music downloads. The common factor in all these disruptions is technology and connectivity.

In South Africa, the area that is ripe for disruption is the education system. The big question is: “What is the job that learners, parents and society hires the education system for?”

According to Clayton Christiansen in his book, Disrupting Class, learners hire the education system for two reasons: to feel successful and to be in the company of friends. Parents want their kids to be off the street and to receive a meaningful education, while society along with businesses want to have students that are ready for the workplace or to be entrepreneurs.

Currently, the system in South Africa and to a certain extent in the US does not fulfil the jobs put to it appropriately.

The problems that plague the system is that teachers are not adequately trained and some of them teach because that is the only job that is going to pay them. There are shocking revelations that there are teachers who score 10 percent in tests on the subjects they teach.

There are problems with the school infrastructure that is not adequate to accommodate the number of learners in the school leading to overcrowding in classrooms. The availability of teaching and learning aids in some schools is pulling back any progress that needs to made within the education system.

The answer that will help address the situation is technology coupled with connectivity. Examples of this are seen in Uruguay and Rwanda where all primary school children are equipped with a $100 laptop called the XO which is part of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation founded by Nicholas Negroponte.

The curriculum in these countries is embedded within the laptop which takes away the issue of textbooks being distributed to learners on a yearly basis. Having electronic textbooks allows the flexibility of being able to update these when needed rather than incurring reprinting and distribution costs to get these to learners. The operating system of the XOs allows collaboration between the learners, which helps them in absorbing information much quicker.

This collaboration illustrates the principle that you learn the material quicker if you teach it to other people. Furthermore, having the laptop allows the learners to proceed at their own pace until they fully understand the concepts, as opposed to the current classroom scenario where a lot of learners get left behind if they do not understand what is being taught by the teacher, who may not also be fully conversant with the material.

The online environment of these laptops also accommodates the learner’s different learning styles. Some people are more visual or tactile in their orientation and so the material that does not tap into their learning style might not resonate well with them. So having electronic education material that addresses the different learning styles will be able to make more learners succeed in understanding their work. There are much more benefits of having active interaction with laptops in the classrooms.

What is the reality of this taking root in South Africa? The biggest opposition is likely to be teachers and their unions if they are not engaged with properly. With the introduction of laptops in the classroom, the role of teachers will change from being the primary information provider to being more of a facilitator and a coach to the learners.

This will bring more of a rounded developmental approach for the learners. The cost of getting the laptops to schools is potentially expensive, but this OLPC approach can be phased in the schools worst affected by the problems mentioned above and then possibly can be scaled up when there is success.

We definitely need this kind of disruption or else we are heading for a long-term abyss in South Africa.


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