Digital libraries to help get textbooks to rural schools


The brightly coloured shipping container that sits in the schoolyard at Ithemeleng Primary School this morning isn’t just a cheerful site that it’s impossible to frown near. It also houses the first Digital Learning Centre from textbook producer Via Afrika, which opened its door to pupils yesterday.

According to group content manager Michael Goodman, Via Afrika has been producing textbooks for South African schools for over 60 years and is fully CAPS compliant for the current syllabus. It produces both paper books and digital textbooks in three different formats for schools which are already using digital technology in the classroom. Goodman says that the firm was inspired by recent developments in the education system – both the proliferation of digital devices and the problems with digital delivery – to invest in a method that he believes could help to improve schooling in rural areas.

“We work with 60-odd schools that are using e-learning,” explains Goodman, “But most of them tend to be the wealthier or already successful schools, both in the private and state sector.”

As a result, Via Afrika has teamed up with two NGOs – Breadline Africa and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory  – to fund three more Digital Learning Centres in schools in Mpumalanga and Limpopo this year, as well as Ithemeleng in the Free State. The projects are completely self-funded, he says, and aren’t reliant on collecting fees from the schools or government subsidy. Each centre is based inside a recycled shipping container which forms a secure library for the school containing both textbooks and tablets which are pre-loaded with Via Africa software. As part of the launch, librarians have been trained to take take responsibility for the gear, and Goodman says follow up sessions with other members of staff will take place over the next few months. Children, he explains, tend to take to the technology quickly and learn how to navigate the Android interface with ease, but it can be intimidating for teachers – a problem often cited as a reason for underuse of technology delivered to schools in the past.

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“Teachers are taking to this quite quickly,” says Goodman, “For the most part they’re still carrying feature phones and have never seen a tablet before, but we get them swiping and tapping around in a few hours.”

Like many of those involved in educational technology, Goodman is critical of many IT-led initiatives in South African schools over the last few years, saying that technology is often dumped on schools in a well meaning gesture which ultimately fails in its goal.

“There are a lot of people putting tablets in schools,” he says, “But they don’t have the content to support them.”

In a similar vein, projects like Gauteng Online target tablet use at very specific age groups – Grades 8 and 9 – whereas the digital libraries are for much younger children and open to all.

Breadeline Africa and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory have been providing libraries in shipping containers to underpriviledged schools for four year, but this is the first one to be equipped with digital technology.

“The libraries help foster a love of reading and give an opportunity to children, many of whom hardly ever see a book, to come into contact with picture and story books,” says Jade Orgill, project manager for Breadline Africa.

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