Education is, without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges for Africa.
With a population of more than 1-billion, the vast majority of them young people, Africa’s youth is a phenomenal reservoir of talent and energy. Nurturing these youngsters to achieve their potential could unleash the continent as this century’s success story.
“The big challenge is that so many students, particularly in secondary and tertiary education, are not learning the critical skills that will allow them to succeed in industry,” says Bernadine Jeffrey, Africa Education Head at Acer.
Technology has a huge role to play in plugging this gap, she adds. “It is especially important in basic education.”
Jeffrey explains that, in fact, technology is important in two respects: students who hope to thrive in tertiary education and the working world need to be technology-literate; and the technology can be harnessed to help them learn in all areas of education.
So by the time many young people first encounter technology – after they leave school – it could be too late to make a meaningful difference in their lives.
“The time to start is in the schools,” Jeffrey says. “And it’s important to provide a complete solution that meets the needs of all the stakeholders.”
This means the needs of the student, the teacher and the school must be met – or technology could become an expensive exercise in frustration, she adds.
In the past, we have all seen pilot projects or full-blown implementations bog down or fail to produce results because the solution doesn’t fill one of these criteria.
“Schools have to look at getting closer to becoming fully digital environments,” Jeffrey says. “And teachers need to be technology-savvy to be able to run these programmes.
“Currently teachers are one of the biggest challenges and obstacles to digital learning, so they need to be empowered to manage the digital classroom.”
There’s no doubt that, managed properly, digital learning works. When children become digitally-literate their overall school performance improves – sometimes by extraordinary leaps.
Jeffrey points to the Orlando Learning Centre that Acer runs in partnership with Orlando Pirates Soccer Club. Students from 17 schools in the area use the facility, and the results have been encouraging.
“At the Orlando Learning Centre, children use the facility for just a couple of hours every week, but there is a profound change in their lives, as well as in their communities. The children, their peers and their families all become so much more.
“We need to empower children with digital literacy first, and we can then move to digital learning,” Jeffrey explains.
“Once a student is digitally-literate, the content is there for them to begin learning in any subject.”
Although connectivity is an issue in many African schools, simply offering a device and Internet connection isn’t enough. Children and teachers alike need to know how to search, query, find information and thus enable learning.
“In Africa, almost everyone – students and teachers – have mobile devices and they are connected,” Jeffrey says. “So the technology is available.
“The next step is to put together meaningful content that can help to bridge the skills gap and put learning in their hands. We work with our reseller partners to create this content; and to help teachers to manage the learning experience.”
So why have so many technology in education projects failed? Jeffrey doesn’t think there’s just one answer to this, but a “perfect storm” of events that need to be tackled individually.
“In Africa, connectivity is an issue. In many areas, there is simply not enough bandwidth – or it’s believed there isn’t enough bandwidth.
“That’s why we are working with companies like Intel to make connectivity less of an issue.”
Perception becomes reality, too, she adds. “Many institutions aren’t aware of what is available and we need to help to create an awareness of what students could be doing.”
Some initiatives in the past have failed to understand that technology in education needs to be a holistic solution. And they’ve focused on the price of individual devices.
“We have seen some massive tablet rollouts where there is a 20% out-of-the-box failure rate,” Jeffrey says. “This is going to happen if the devices are sourced as cheaply as possible, and there are no warranties.
“In these circumstances, where you are rolling out millions of devices, this means that hundreds of thousands of them are non-functional.”
The lesson that the industry needs to learn from these failures, she adds, is to work with a vendor that, like Acer, offers a one-year fix, repair and return guarantee on its products.
Importantly, Acer’s education products also come standard with the software needed to run a digital classroom since devices on their own can’t accomplish much.
With devices like the Chromebook, educational institutions can also track their devices to ensure they are where they are supposed to be.
“This gives the school a central point of management. They can track the device physically, but also check what it’s being used for and what sites it is visiting.
“This means that schools can have total control over their devices.”
Channel partners are vital in the education arena, Jeffrey adds. “There is an opportunity here for everyone.
“We had a workshop recently with resellers and it was worrying that so few partners are aware of the solutions that are available.
“One such solution is the Intel Education Content Access Point, an easy-to-use device specifically designed to store, manage, and distribute digital content where connectivity is low or doesn’t exist.”
The Education Content Access Point combines the benefits of an Internet access point and a stand-alone content server in one device. Because it’s lightweight and portable, it’s easily moved from room to room and can even be used for teaching outdoors.
With the Education Content Access Point, content can be uploaded and organised for access by the whole classroom – even when there is no Internet connectivity.
“This is just one of the solutions that has been custom-made for Africa, and that goes a long way to solving some of the issues we encounter on the continent.”
With about 27 000 schools and dozens of tertiary institutions in South Africa, education is a big opportunity for resellers, Jeffrey says.
“Resellers have a unique opportunity to become the solution providers to schools. And we will work with them: holding their hands, equipping them with the relevant skills, and helping them to provide the right solution.”
Of course, it helps of the channel partners understand the education market and the challenges that it throws up. “But we would absolutely help them with this,” Jeffrey says.
“Resellers need to have an infrastructure and consultants that we can help to train up. They need to know what they are going to do with the equipment, and the rest we will help with and provide training on.”
While provincial governments are theoretically in charge of rolling out technology to public schools, many of them are not waiting on official policy but forging ahead with their own IT initiatives.
“Yes, many schools are waiting on formalised government programmes, but they are certainly able to go ahead on their own in the meantime,” Jeffrey points out.
“In addition, many private schools are rolling our ambitious technology programmes. We see the biggest uptake for technology in education in the private schools and former Model C public schools.”
This doesn’t mean these schools are the limit of the education opportunity. “It is so desperately needed in the poorer schools,” Jeffrey says. “And there are so many ways that it could be done effectively.” For instance, she points out that each Chromebook can have up to 150 profiles. This means a single charging trolley of Chromebooks, wheeled from class to class, can provide personalised technology for each child in an entire school.
“This means we can start putting bundles together that can assist all the students in their studies.”
With a little imagination and a bit of determination, Jeffrey believes that technology can be rolled out to every child in South Africa, and used to make a positive impact on their lives and the future of our country.