Textbooks and stationery lie unused in the Department of Educations warehouse in Polokwane because of delays by the department in distributing them to schools in Limpopo. Picture: Itumeleng English

Michael Rice

THE ANC’S policy conference has come and gone with a lot of hot air being expended on semantics: transformation vs phase. What a waste.

Not a word about solving the education crisis. Not even, it would seem, an acknowledgement that there is a crisis.

Limpopo may be getting the headlines now, but the problem is much deeper. Every year the distribution of textbooks throughout the country is fraught with problems.

Complex tender processes, curriculum renewal and intractable incompetence, corruption, theft and fraud bog down our school textbook industry.

It is a honey pot for tenderpreneurs.

Billions are spent every year in providing or not providing schools with textbooks and stationery.

One estimate has it at nearly R4 billion with an extra R450 million for the ill-fated workbooks.

Clearly, the present approach to distribution is failing. No one seems to be asking: are there alternatives?

There are. It is technologically possible for every schoolchild at the beginning of the school year to receive a dedicated e-reader with exclusive registration and PIN, programmed to download electronic texts for the entire school curriculum.

If such a system were put in place, admittedly at huge capital cost though equally potential long-term savings, there would be immediate administrative and logistical advantages.

For example, the logistics of ordering, storing, handing out books at the beginning of the academic year and collecting books at the end of the school year, could be eliminated.

The delivery and storage of truckloads of books to far-flung towns can be eliminated. The endemic corruption that is part and parcel of the textbook procurement and distribution process could be eliminated.

The educational benefits would be immense. Every child would have all the required learning materials on day one of the academic year. Curriculum materials could be revised and updated annually and downloaded at the press of a button.

Pupils would be able to edit the material in front of them. Extra notes and comments could be inserted. Standardised tests could be downloaded and submitted to the teacher for electronic assessment, providing instant feedback.

Marking and assessment time could be cut by at least 50 percent.

E-readers/tablets would allow pupils to read way beyond the syllabus and to access the internet.

An e-reader can store up to 2 500 titles. Enrichment material could be downloaded as and when needed. Support material could be downloaded for pupils in their mother tongue. Lost texts can be replaced by simply requesting a new download from the administrative desk. And, a big bonus for the kids, no more heavy book bags.

E-readers/tablets could be used to assist teachers with administration and facilitate replies to their queries regarding curriculum issues. They could also monitor the performance levels of teachers without time-consuming visits to schools.

What is sadly lacking apart from real political will or sense of responsibility is a lack of imagination and courage.

We are living through a digital revolution. Digital technology is not only changing the way we organise and conduct our lives, but how we relate to one another. It is speculated it is having an impact on the structure of our brains and how we think. Those in positions of power and influence who do not recognise this or don’t have enough imagination to see the potential of digitisation for teaching and learning are missing an opportunity not only to transform education, but to give real substance to the much-vaunted notion of transforming the nation.

Educational authorities worldwide are recognising the challenges and opportunities that e-technology poses as they prepare the present generation for the information age.

In the US, Britain, Holland, Israel, Ghana, Bangladesh, Taiwan and China, educationists are switching to digital textbooks. SA faces a similar challenge. The question is: are the politicians concerned with making education a national priority or, are they going to remain in denial?

l Dr Michael Rice is a former special adviser to the minister of education and was for many years a lecturer in English at the Johannesburg College of Education.