Tablets for everyone

February 12, 2019

During last week’s State of the Nation speech, President Ramaphosa expanded on the government’s idea to give every learner in every school a tablet. He sounded a little bit like Oprah,

“A tablet for you, a tablet for you, a tablet for everyone!”

Since this plan was first featured early in January, I have been approached a number of times to give my take on it. Now as a teacher who uses technology in my class every single day, it would be hypocritical of me to say that my learners should have devices, but the rest of the country should not have access to technology. So, in theory, I support the program, but it is when it comes to the practical side of it, where I have serious doubts. Technology-rich classrooms are fantastic and if we continue to ignore this fact, we are doing our learners a disservice. But for technology to be integrated successfully, certain things need to be in place.

What is the point behind tablets in schools?

The president made a good case that we need to prepare our learners for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and he is right when he says that our current school system is not preparing our learners adequately for this brave new world.
It is also true that as more and more aspects of our lives are infiltrated by technology, people who are not comfortable users of technology are getting left further and further behind. Catlin Tucker explains on her blog how technology is changing our definition of what it means to be literate and at some point, not being able to use a computer will be more of a hindrance than not being able to read.

But while preparing for the Fourth Industrial revolution might be the long game when it comes to rolling out tablets in schools, we should not lose sight of the short term goal. The South African Education system is struggling. Classes are too big, vast numbers of learners finish 12 years of schooling barely literate, with hardly any skills that can help them get a job. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high. It is easy to look at the opportunities that technology offers and sees it as a silver bullet that can solve all the problems in our education system. And it won’t be wrong to say that technology does make personalised learning a possibility and it could solve a lot of the problems in our education system, but a silver bullet it is not.

I have worked with a number of schools that use technology in their classrooms, and I have seen first hand that there are three critical things that have to be in place otherwise technology integration is doomed to fail.

What is needed before we can have tablets in schools?

Infrastructure

Technology integration is about so much more than just handing learners a tablet. From the little bit of information that is currently available, it sounds like the government want to cut the infrastructure corner, by making use of custom, locked down devices, where the content is stored locally on the tablet, and the devices don’t necessary have wifi abilities. I can see why they want to do this, but I can also tell you that a tablet that does not connect to the internet is a very expensive textbook behind glass. If we are serious about preparing learners for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, then we have to give them access to the information highway that is the internet and teach them how to navigate it.

So what infrastructure does a school need before they can roll out tablets?

Bandwidth – the biggest complaint I get from teachers who use technology in their classes is that the internet is too slow. There is nothing that guarantees failure as quickly as slow internet. And we are not talking of an ADSL line. With apps and websites becoming more and more visual, a strong fibre connection is a must.
Enterprise level wifi – this is the one thing that people often underestimate, even if you cut on the bandwidth cost, by hosting a lot of content locally, you still need an enterprise level wifi network, your average home router is not going to cut it. Just think for a moment, if you have 500 learners in the school, your system should be able to connect 800 – 1 000 simultaneously (research actually say you should multiply the number of learners with 2,5 to approximate the total number of devices) and in a very small area. It can be done, but it requires a fairly sophisticated system.
An IT guy (or girl) on site – I have not heard the president mention this at all, so I am not sure he has realised that if you have 500 learners with 500 devices, you have 500 problems that need to be fixed. Every school I work with on technology integration starts off thinking that they can get away with off-site support and making one or two teachers responsible for problem shooting on-site. It never works. If technology is really integrated into the learning process, learners cannot wait for the off-site support to fix the problem with their tablet, they need it fixed now. And no, even your technology savvy teacher are not trained nor do they have the time to manage a network of this magnitude.
Other technology – tablets in the hands of learners is relatively useless if there is no data projector/screen in the class to enable the teacher and learners to share their screens; after all our aim is collaboration and communication. This might be obvious, but most classrooms in South Africa are not yet equipped with a teacher computer and projector.
No Loadshedding – I remember our principal reminding us during the last bout of load-shedding that we cannot afford to lose any academic time due to load-shedding, so while we can use technology as much as we want, we better have a plan B to continue should the power be down. But the more immersive technology becomes, the harder it is to have a load-shedding plan. Yes, a good teacher can still teach, but if technology is integral to what you had planned for a specific lesson, it can be very disruptive if there suddenly is no power.

Training, training, training

From where I stand this is the most important aspect. The mere presence of technology in the classroom does not prepare learners for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or even just for today’s workplace. To achieve that we have to approach teaching in a different way. Being paperless is not a pedagogical aim. I have seven principles that underlie successful eLearning implementation and none of them is “use eBooks”, or “create a Powerpoint”, or “Google something”. Those are digital skills, not pedagogical principles.

In order for the president’s plan to work, we need an urgent retraining program for all our teachers. I can not stress this enough, teaching through technology involves looking at your teaching practices in a completely new way. Just adding technology to current teaching practices does not work. In actual fact adding technology to current practices often lead to reduced success, since the technology disrupts the traditional methods but the traditional methods are limiting the ways in which technology can aid the learning process. I have a rule of thumb that for every rand spend on infrastructure and devices at least one rand should be spent on training the teachers in how to integrate the technology into their teaching practices.

The problem, OK one of the problems, are that until teachers are familiar with the technology themselves, it is almost impossible to train them in using technology effectively in their classrooms. This does not mean teachers need to know everything about every piece of technology before they can use it, but until teachers (and learners) have basic digital literacy skills, the goal of teaching through technology is a pipe dream.
More often than not schools will ask me to come and do a professional development session on teaching through technology, but in the end instead of digging deep into the important stuff like how you would set technology-rich assignments, we spend all our time on “click here”, “open that”.

I often hear the argument that technology could solve the shortage of good teachers in South Africa, and while there are some innovative programmes that utilise technology to help learners who do not have access to good teaching, the fact is that the success of technology integration is directly dependent on having an exceptional teacher in the class. Without the presence of a good teacher or with a teacher who does not buy into the process, studies have shown that the effect of using technology in the classroom is minimal.

Resources

The last thing that needs to be in place before we can even consider tablets in schools is the resources that are available to teachers. Currently, the majority of digital resources available to teachers is really just digital versions of the resources that they are already using. eBooks offer very little more than a pdf version of the hardcopy. And a digital format is often not the best format for these resources. Slowly but surely we are seeing programs that offer some individual or intelligent practice options. But this is still only available in a small number of subjects and more often than not they involve business models that lock a school down in a specific system, making it financially prohibitive for teachers to access these resources.

And while we are talking about content and resources, let’s be honest with ourselves, the CAPS curriculum has a lot to say about integrating technology, but in its essence, its objectives are often at a complete crossroads with the ideas and principles of eLearning. In technology-rich classrooms, the focus is on individualised learning, while CAPS aims to have all learners do the same thing at the same time. Until the curriculum really embraces the ideas of eLearning, I am willing to take a bet that the president’s tablets will become very expensive paperweights.

As I am writing this I am thinking of more and more things that need to be in place before we can consider a general roll-out of tablets in schools.  This article is merely scratching the surface. At some point I might write a follow-up on what I think we should be doing. Because I don’t necessarily think the president is wrong, it is definitely the way to go in the long run. But now, at this point in time in our country, technology-rich classrooms in all schools is a pipedream, or maybe rather an election year castle on a cloud and a gamble with our children’s education.

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