“How different are these learners today?” asks Sammy Thomas, an institutional development and support officer from the Gauteng Education Department, “Many of us – and teachers specifically – have a problem with that. ‘If it worked for us it will work for them’… our reference is still ‘when I was at school’, isn’t it? It can’t work any more.”

Thomas is standing in front of an audience of about 150 parents, teachers, governors and IT resellers at an open day at Sunward Park High School in Boksburg. The purpose of the day is to give parents and professionals from this school and others an insight into how it became the first government school in South Africa to throw away its textbooks and require all pupils to bring a fully charged tablet computer to class every day.

Speakers from the school staff and its suppliers talk about how long it took them to overcome problems with things like the cost of kit, designing lesson plans and getting textbooks to put on-screen. Vivien Naidoo, founder of MIB Software in Highlands North, explains how the huge library of learning resources, which straddles both freeware like Khan Academy and proprietary ebooks from CAPS-aligned suppliers, was put together and how pupils can access it. Deputy Principal Enoch Thango talks about the biggest challenge of all – getting WiFi to work.

Sunward Park, mooted to be the model for tablets in education in South Africa.
Sunward Park, mooted to be the model for tablets in education in South Africa.

The school went through two different networking companies who almost, but not completely, failed to blanket the school with a useable network signal that allowed children to access class materials but not the internet at large. Eventually, Thango says, the school realised that WiFi was so critical to the success of the project that it was the one area upon which it couldn’t skimp. It called in Ruckus Wireless who, despite costing more than most suppliers, sorted every problem he had out within 24 hours.

I’ve written about Sunward Park a lot in the past. Lots of things about the school have surprised me and, I’ll be honest, changed my opinion about the role tablets can play in schools based in underprivileged areas. The first time I went to Sunward, I was very sceptical. The one thing that really surprises me about the initiative to take a former model C with a large township catchment totally digital is that no-one has questioned it at all. There’s been no sniping from the sidelines, no carping about costs: everything I’ve read, everyone I’ve spoken to about Sunward Park has been positive to a greater or lesser degree.

And now, the school has found a new and highly influential supporter. This week, Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi told listeners of Radio 702 that he had visited Sunward Park and was so impressed with what he saw, he wants every other school in the province to mimic it. Lesufi’s announcement appears to have taken his own department by surprise – it has no hard details to flesh out about how his plan will work. Apparently Lesufi has told his counterpart in the DA that the overall cost of the project will be around R2bn, but even that is vague. Is this the same R2.2bn that was earmarked for the Gauteng Online project (now called eLearning Solution)? R1.2bn of that is for networking alone.

What we do know is that even staff at Sunward thought that plans were under wraps for a few more weeks, and no moves have been made by the department to clarify Lesufi’s plans outlined on the radio. The MEC’s plan seems a lot more ambitious than simply dropping off 40 tablets each at schools, which is the current goal for eLearning Solution.

Children working on the Strreetwise stations at Umqhele in Ivory Park.
Children working on the Strreetwise stations at Umqhele in Ivory Park.

In his radio interview, Lesufi said that all new schools in Gauteng will be built using Sunward as a model, and other schools will be upgraded until every child in the province has a tablet. It’s also been suggested to me that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) wants to expand that vision nationally.

Lesufi said that the new plan includes funding for back-up generators to charge tablets during power cuts, and training programs drawn up with the assistance of Sunward staff, learning from their experience. Actual budget allocations and how it sits alongside the existing IT for schools project haven’t yet been made clear. The current “e-Learning Solution” replaced Gauteng Online at the start of this year, and was budgeted at R396.2bn over two years. That covered the cost of getting 88 000 tablets out to each of the 2 200 public schools in the area, along with broadband networking for the establishments involved. The extra costs involved in the new vision are rumoured to be around R2bn, but the timescale isn’t clear.

Is Sunward Park the best role model, though? As impressive as the school is, it’s only been textbook free for 18 months at a time when the national Department of Education has also been running a large-scale research project which has involved trialling many different ways of putting more tech into teaching. The results of that haven’t been published yet, so it could be presumptuous to say that the Sunward strategy is going to work everywhere. Especially given the track record of recent effort by Gauteng authorities to get schools online.

“Since the [Gauteng Online] project started there have been issues with connectivity – hence the nickname Gauteng Off Line,” says The Star’s education correspondent, Nontobeko Mtshali, “The labs have been broken into or are just sitting idle because schools don’t have trained staffers to utilise the facilities or and lack qualified teachers to teach computer related subjects. For as long as these problems remain, the intended purpose of the project won’t be met. For the most part, it appears as though the education system has not fully embraced ICT in education. Technology is still largely limited to computer related subjects like IT and not seen as something that can be incorporated and utilised in the teaching and learning process as a whole.”

Streetwise terminals are a South African invention. Simple, but effective.
Streetwise terminals are a South African invention. Simple, but effective.

Even more disturbingly, a report published this week by Via Afrika – a South African CAPS certified textbook publisher which has recently begun to expand into ebooks for schools – fewer than a third of teachers in the country have rudimentary IT skills.

Umqhele Secondary in Ivory Park, Tembisa, is a classic case in point. Earlier this year it received a gift of 30 Streetwise terminals thanks to a CSR donation from tech firm Altech Autopage. The Streetwise terminals are a South African design created by Cape Town’s The Content Company in 2009.

Streetwise terminals are very cheap, very rugged and exceptionally simple. They come in batches of ten – two master terminals for teachers and eight slaves, which are essentially thin client machines. The master units have 3G modems built-in and share their connections with the others. They’re useful for accessing library materials and Wikipedia, and very good at teaching children how to research using web tools, but not a general purpose learning device.

When I visited Umqhele, it had already received its 40 Huawei tablets delivered by the government, but the teachers were unsure of how to use them or integrate them into their classrooms. With only enough tablets for one class at a time, it’s hard to see how they’ll be useful for non-IT subjects – a problem encountered at other schools too. Over at Phefani Secondary, on Soweto’s famous Vilakazi Street, humanities teachers are already frustrated that there’s no way for them to use the tablets to teach their kids.

In Umqhele, there are many questions. Can teachers book out tablets to access Romeo and Juliet for English, for example, or to find resources to learn about the rise of the Zulu nation? Or will demand be too high? Staff aren’t confident using the tablets, and it’s not for want of leadership or vision. You’d be hard pressed to find a better, stronger head than Mrs Lekgoathi.

The Streetwise terminals, by comparison, are simple and obvious. Kids can use them in their spare time, because they’re just another library resource. One of the main reasons that the terminals have the support of staff at the school, however, is because Altech is also funding a full-time member of staff to manage the new computers and help pupils and other teachers use them productively.

One important way in which Sunward will vary from the model being mooted is that at Sunward all parents are expected to buy their children their own tablet – parents enjoy significant cost savings over the price of textbooks in the first year. The MEC’s vision is to supply one tablet per child from the state. That raises all kinds of interesting questions about whether or not the resource is more valued if you pay for it.

It is, however, a model that can work.

Over in the UK, the state-funded Essa Academy in Bolton was arguably in a worse off situation than Sunward Park. In 2007 it was close to being categorised a “failing school”, with low academic results, a high turnover of staff and students and some of the most challenging teaching conditions in the country. In 2008, it began a program in which it moved entirely to elearning and instead of buying textbooks began to give its pupils tablets. Not just any tablet, either, Essa Academy is entirely iPad-based.

Just like Sammy Thomas, Essa’s Abdul Chohan describes the vision as “trying to redefine education and do things we haven’t done before”. Like Sunward, Essa doesn’t use technology for technology’s sake – in fact, Chohan says, it’s vitally important that anything they use “can be bought in a shopping mall”. More important than the iPads is the conviction that the previously written off kids can succeed, given the right tools and change in mentality from staff too.

streetwise terminalFor example, using Apple’s built-in learning library – iTunes U – to gather materials and lesson plans means that all planning is done in the open. Parents can see what’s going on in class, says Chohan, which makes them feel engaged with it. Likewise teachers are more exposed, so lesson plans are better and more professional. School meals were improved so that children were better nourished and new rules around social behaviour introduced. Chohan talks regularly and enthusiastically about instilling confidence in the pupils: “training them to be CEOs” with “the tools that CEOs use”, not simply churning out pass-grade pupils for factory jobs any more.

Essa’s results have been astounding. Indeed, the leap in its end-of-year exam scores in 2009 was so large that the editor of the local paper refused to print them, believing it to be a typo. And even more amazingly, the school is even saving money: the reduction in photocopying costs alone from £30 ooo a year (R539 472) in 2008 to £9 000 (R161 000) is enough to offset the cost of iPads for almost all new students in a year. 

And that’s where the vision for Gauteng gets complex. On the one hand, it’s not fair to undervalue the potential of any school, teacher or learner to embrace high tech transformation and start producing world-class students with a world class education. On the other, it’s not an issue in which schools and the bureaucracy that runs them have a great track record.

Kobus van Wyk is a leading proponent of IT in education who blogs at E4Africa. He’s a great admirer of Sunward Park.

“Sunward Park succeeded in its technology implementation owing to specific factors,” van Wyck says, “Those factors are not necessarily present – in fact, it’s unlikely that they will be – in the majority of schools.”

And that’s going to be the biggest problem. It’s expensive, but fairly straightforward, to get tablets into schools. Whether or not every school will use them well is what the department of education must work out.