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'Appropriate use' of ICT in classrooms seen as helping turn SA’s education tide

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'Appropriate use' of ICT in classrooms seen as helping turn SA’s education tide

13th November 2015

By: Schalk Burger
Creamer Media Contributing Editor

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The launch of the Operation Phakisa Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education initiative will see classrooms fitted with smart black boards and pupils given tablet computers to do work and access source materials.

Operation Phakisa ICT in Education marks an overdue turning point in South Africa’s quest to transform teaching and learning through the appropriate use of ICT, said President Jacob Zuma at the launch, in Ekurhuleni, in October.

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The initiative aimed to overcome the well- documented shortcomings of basic education in South Africa by using ICT resources and systems to improve the current system and teachers. Operation Phakisa was based on the Malaysian ‘big, fast results’ programmes, which helped it to achieve admirable developmental results quickly, noted Zuma.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura says there is significantly higher enthusiasm for teaching and learning in schools that have transitioned to electronic-learning (e-learning) systems.

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The ICT in Education initiative covers equipment, connectivity, content, learning applications (apps), administration and teacher training, as well as regular assess- ments of the impact and effectiveness of these components.

It is integrally linked to the National Development Plan (NDP). Makhura notes that Operation Phakisa initiatives reflect a governing urgency and purpose to achieve the radical economic and social developmental goals of the fifth administration.

One of the main Operation Phakisa ICT in Education documents is the Action Plan 2019, which notes that “attainment of these [NDP] goals hinges on education, training and innovation and affirms why education is an apex priority to achieve these goals”.

The plan aims to have all schools in the country – about 21 469 – reliably connected to the Internet at a minimum of 10 Mb/s speeds by the 2019/20 financial year to allow for better administration and monitoring of curriculum, expenses and personnel. The connectivity will also enable pupils and teachers to access Department of Basic Education (DBE) content and external content through the DBE cloud, called the Thutong Portal.

The portal contains digitised versions of most of the current curricula materials and would also function as a content quality “clearing house” for external content. Thus, it also enables private-sector and nongovernmental organisation (NGO) content providers to disseminate free-to-use materials through this DBE cloud system.

However, the Action Plan 2019 emphasises that the broadband speeds will be reviewed and must be “adequate” for needs, as well as providing space for future extensions or upgrades. Beyond the minimum speeds, the aim is to have all schools equipped with 1 Gb/s connections after 2020.

Pedagogy
Operation Phakisa ICT in Education aimed to find ways to accelerate ICT provisioning to all schools and “works with the understanding that devices alone cannot improve learning,” said Zuma.

Significantly, the plan emphasises pedagogy and the continuous development of teachers. While the system will include self-learning systems, providing pupils with access to learning apps, curriculum and external content, the model aims for hybrid teaching that combines self-learning and instruction.

“The vision is to transform learning and teaching through ICTs, and to produce ICT capable learners, defined as the ability to use ICTs confidently and creatively to develop the skills and knowledge needed to achieve personal goals and make meaningful contributions to society,” he added.

The Action Plan 2019 includes teacher training components. The first two phases of the Teacher Professional Development (TPD) programme, from 2015 to 2017, will focus on training teachers to use ICT equipment and systems. The subsequent phases will see the use of these electronic media and systems for TPD in non-ICT content.

It emphasises support for teachers to become “competent, confident and knowledgeable, able to comfortably use ICT to support teaching and learning using advanced pedagogical techniques”.

Subsequently, teachers will confidently be able to use ICT to broaden and deepen their knowledge of subject matter and also use it for personal development, notes Makhura, referring to examples of some teachers in Gauteng who had access to e-learning systems and used it to improve their knowledge.

“An online approach will afford teachers the ability to collaborate with their communities of practice,” noted Zuma, “and they will be able to engage in online programmes to enhance skills and strengthen their content knowledge for the delivery of the curriculum.”

According to the Action Plan 2019, teachers will be assessed yearly on their competencies in using the new systems, while educational content and usage will also be assessed and updated yearly.

The first phase of electronic annual national assessments of teachers will be implemented during the 2017/18 financial year, and teacher self-assessment systems will be implemented prior to this to enable teachers to benchmark themselves against norms and standards.

However, the plan emphasises that the administration system is a two-way system that will enable the communication of impediments or problems from teachers and schools to district bodies up to national department level. The goal of this aspect of the Action Plan 2019 is to remove the risk of communication hierarchies not communicating complaints or challenges effectively.

Aims and Challenges
Zuma, explaining the rationale for establishing an ICT in Education Phakisa at the launch, noted that the “pace of providing technology and connectivity and then integrating these into teaching and learning has been slow and inadequate, and has been characterised by unsustainable and fragmented ICT initiatives, which lacked centralised coordination, focus and measured impact”.

While Gauteng’s experiences of using ICT in education have not been universally successful, the province’s experiences were invaluable and informed much of the Action Plan 2019, says Makhura.

For example, connectivity was an important issue during roll-out in Gauteng, and requires State and private-sector support to address. Security and theft were also key challenges, while cost is the overarching factor constrain- ing the roll-out of ICT equipment for use in education.

The plan was developed by 120 experts and officials from the national and provincial Depart- ments of Basic Education and other government departments, labour, academia and the private sector to unravel the challenges in the system and develop, as well as fast-track, the national roll-out of ICT in the basic education sector.

“We must admit that we have not taken full advantage and exploited the potential that ICTs can bring in assisting us to attain educational outcomes in this country. ICTs have huge benefits to bring into the teaching and learning spaces,” said Zuma.

“The advancements made thus far can be attributed largely to the partnership between government, the private sector, social partners and the NGO sector, by providing schools with ICT resources coupled with relevant teacher training,” he noted.

Government calls on the private sector and NGO partners to support the plans and to assist the country in ensuring the sustainability of the e-education initiatives, added Zuma.

The private sector will play a roll in the digitisation of education in the country, as the plan notes that it aims to enable a “reduction in capital expenditure by government”. The plan provides no further details on how this will be achieved.

The plan contains set frameworks and timelines for achievement of the various goals, providing the necessary guidelines for all participants. The main focus for the current financial year is the assessment of existing resources and developing the norms and standards to enable the roll-out of the ambitious plan, notes DBE Deputy Minister Enver Surty.

Assessment
A key part of the Action Plan 2019 is the regular evaluation of components against goals and deadlines, and routine monitoring of administration and implementation.

The aim is to have integrated administration across all levels of the school system, from individual schools, circuits and districts up to national department level.

This will lead to “cost savings through the elimination of duplicate administration processes; the development of a single information base; enable targeted strategic interventions informed by factual data; and increased financial governance and risk management”.

The national norms and standards to govern these ICT in education systems are being finalised during the current financial year, while a review of these norms and standards will be done in the following financial year. A yearly audit report of the systems, collectively called the Virtual Learning Solution, will also be done.

During the 2016/17 financial year, quarterly reviews of the impact on infrastructure will be done. These will assess the effectiveness of infrastructure to meet the needs of the initiative, as well as losses from theft or damage to determine ways to combat these impacts. These reviews will then become half-yearly and then yearly during subsequent years.

The Action Plan 2019 emphasises the potential to reduce ineffective administration, as well as root out “ghost teachers” and over- and under-reporting of student numbers. While the Action Plan 2019 aims to enable a reduction in administration costs and ineffectiveness, it does not mention a reduction in administration staff, highlighting only training of “administration assistants”.

Whether this will see existing staff retrained or new personnel hired is not known, though Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, in October, had placed a moratorium on new staff recruitment in the public sector. Thus, retraining of existing administration staff is expected.

The Action Plan 2019 will also deploy a Hub and Spoke model for ICT infrastructure support and maintenance at schools. This will include identifying local partners to deploy systems, as well as training local technicians to maintain infrastructure in schools in a district. Universal Service Obligations will govern the quality of services, connectivity and equipment for all schools and districts.

Other Operation Phakisa initiatives, such as the Oceans Economy initiative, have evoked grudging support from the private sector, as evidence emerges that they can overcome public service and interdepartmental barriers, owing to being driven by the Presidency. The private sector has also largely backed the NDP, which formed the basis of the Phakisa programmes.

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