Inside South Africa’s first textbook free government school
“Alright, Lisa T. Stop looking at pictures and get on with your work.”
It’s a shout which could have gone out from the front of any classroom in any school in the world. And to be fair, the fact that only one group of pupils out of an all-girl Grade 8 class of 35 is distracted from the task in hand – learning the ANSI standard icons for circuit diagrams – shows a remarkable level of engagement for young students. Mr Keulder, the teacher for this science lesson, turns back to his whiteboard.
“Now, carry on,” he says, “I want you to complete this circuit and add a voltmeter over the battery pack.”
The reason for the exercise is that everybody failed one question this morning’s five minute test at the start of class – are voltmeters wired in serial or parallel to a circuit? What makes the test, and the class, and the photos pre-occupying Lisa T unique is that the entire class is using only tablet computers, with barely a piece of paper in sight.
A classroom full of kids with slates is not so rare a sight in the rich private schools of Sandton, but this is Sunward Park High School: a government school in southern Johannesburg.
Sunward Park is a former model C school in the Boksburg area, in which more than 90% of pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are around 1 230 pupils from Grades 8 to 12, most of whom come from Freeway Park or Van Dyke primaries. Both schools have large catchment areas into the nearby townships.
Most importantly, it has no textbooks. And it hasn’t since January this year. Uniquely for a state school, that’s by intention rather than the sort of non-delivery scandal that hit schools in Limpopo last year, or lack of funding. Every pupil at Sunward is required to buy a tablet and bring it, fully charged, to class every morning. Failure to do the latter two will result in a typical scholarly punishment – detention or similar. Struggle to achieve the first, however, and the school will do its best to help out.
Given the school’s demographic, it’s surprising that only four families have approached the governing body for financial assistance purchasing the technology since textbooks were dumped at the start of this year. That’s a sign of how expensive even a state-provided education is in South Africa for children at a Section 21 school, and the extremely high cost of textbooks in the country. It’s also, says Deputy Principle Enoch Thango, a sign of just how much support the book-free initiative has had from parents.
“Parents were already spending an average of R1 800 on textbooks every year anyway,” explains Thango, “We were able to sell two different tablets at the start, a seven inch one for R1 000 and a 10inch one for R2 000. Most of our textbooks come from MacMillan or Pearsons, and we were able to negotiate a big discount on three year licences for ebook versions, so it only costs R300 per learner per year.”
Those licensing costs even allow a small overhead towards maintenance of the IT infrastructure, and gives the school the opportunity to put some budget aside for investing in future development too.
On top of the cost of textbooks, the school was also photocopying somewhere in the region of a million pages a year to supplement coursework. All of which can now be distributed electronically, effectively for free.
“In order to adopt the policy,” Thango continues, “We had to get the approval of the parent-teachers association (PTA). When we held the meeting, we expected the assembly hall to be filled to capacity. We could have filled it three times over, the support was overwhelming… The children were easy to convince, especially when they realised their bags would be so much lighter.”
Initially, parents were given a fixed choice between the two tablets offered by the school, but next year Sunward is shifting to a ‘bring your own device’ model and will list minimum specifications for tablets but leave the final decision to parents. Manufacturers including Samsung and Mecer will attend a special session for new parents to learn about and purchase tablets at the end of the month, and it’s expected there will be pay-by-installments offerings to help spread the cost.
There will be no iPads at the event. The basic requirements are a seven or ten inch tablet running Google’s Android operating system with at least a Gorilla glass screen, and beyond that there’s free choice. A test deployment of Intel’s Classmate Windows 8 convertibles has proved popular with teachers and pupils too. Apparently, Generation Y still likes a keyboard when it comes to writing stuff down.
There were iPads, though. Once. Sunward’s decision at the end of 2012 to go fully digital this year wasn’t a snap choice made without experience. The first computers arrived in 2008, with six laptops and projectors for the teachers to share. Then, in 2010, the school was adopted by the Peermont School Support Programme, which donated 10 MacBooks and iPads for educators. The limited numbers available, hassles of signing them in and out of the storeroom and high costs for adding more meant that a lot of teachers didn’t use them in class.
As well as cost, Thango explains, problems with playing back web videos also meant iPads were ruled off the list for the current project.
The policy seems to be working, although Thango is keen to point out that the first year hasn’t been easy. It’s already on to its third network provider for the classroom WiFi – two operators were thrown out after oversupplying equipment like access points which created so much network interference that children couldn’t connect, but Thango has nothing but praise for their current one – Ruckus.
“They put in 25 access points that cover the whole school and did it within 24 hours,” he says, “Most schools won’t have to go through these issues, though, because we’re the guinea pigs.”
Thango believes that other schools will follow soon, and the project is being closely monitored by the Gauteng Education Department for other inner-city establishments. As well as technical issues, best practices are also being drawn up for lesson plans and which software to use. The open source Moodle is popular with teachers, but the school is also working with Intel and its Learning Series Suite, which allows teachers to see what’s on pupils’ screens while they’re working.
Not all teachers have adopted the technology as fully as Keuler’s class, and papers and pens are encouraged for coursework because final exams won’t be digital for sometime yet. The one thing that the school insists on, however, is that each lesson starts with a five minute test completed on the tablet screen which is based on the last lesson. The instant feedback lets teachers quickly work out where pupils are struggling with concepts and if there needs to be a particular focus for the current lesson.
Given that the school is a guinea pig, however, there are obvious concerns that the children’s education will suffer as a result of teething problems. The teachers and pupils we spoke to, however, played down concerns. The extra workload is on teachers, who have to adapt lesson plans to a digital format, but pupils are more engaged than previously and the school is confident that the end of year assessments will show improved scores all round.
We’ll have to wait and see, of course.
Thango does have a quick response to other concerns too. The WiFi network is a closed loop, so children can’t access social media or other websites from school. A separate network for teachers provides internet access for streaming videos into classrooms where necessary. In addition, he points out that although there were big concerns about crime and tablets getting stolen. So far, however, there’s not been one reported case of trouble – although this could change with the BYOD policy. Cheap, functional school tablets aren’t attractive outside of the classroom but something more expensive could be.
Thango is confident that Sunward Park’s policies will become the norm in Gauteng government schools before long, however, and believes that schools in rural areas would benefit enormously by taking the complications of textbook delivery and cost out of the equation.
And as for Lisa T – who turns out to be two girls sharing a tablet rather than a single entity – at least they learned a valuable lesson today. If you’re going to mess around with a webcam in class, selfies are a quick way to ensure you get caught.