Growing up in the village of Mduku in KwaZulu-Natal, Mbuyiselo Ndlovu, like many other young people in rural areas, didn’t have it easy when it came to education and access to quality learning material at his school, Mduku High. The village is one of many in South Africa that still doesn’t have access to basic electricity and Mbuyiselo often times had to attend after school classes that ran into the night, sometimes until 10pm.

But today, the learners now attending at Mduku High School have a better chance at improved learning through an app called Ukufunda, created by Mbuyiselo himself.

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Mbuyiselo Ndlovu

Ukufunda, which means “to learn in isiZulu”, is a mobile app designed for teachers, learners and parents to use in classrooms and homes around South Africa. It was officially launched today at an event hosted at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg.

The creation of the app is the result of an sparked by a partnership between UNICEF, Mxit Reach and the Department of Basic Education. Around 3 000 schools have already registered under the Ukufunda trial distribution, with teachers being the first to use the app in their schools’ curriculum.

“We want to close gap between rich and poor and ICT is that vehicle,” says Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesfui. “Our dream is to compete internationally with other BRICS countries.”

MEC Panyaza Lesufi
Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi

After high school, Mbuyiselo went on to study Computer Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and then landed a job at Mxit. Mxit Reach approached him with the idea of creating Ukufunda and asked him to develop the app.

“I always wanted to know how ATMs and cell phones work. I am a very dedicated person, so I enjoy working on Ukufunda,” Mbuyiselo says. “I work with a team at Mxt it including project managers and I communicate with other developers. At first it wasn’t easy, but it’s getting better because it’s something I do everyday.”

“I think Ukufunda has the potential to solve a lot of problems especially in rural areas where there are challenges with quality education.”

“Ukufunda was conceptualised through meetings with UNICEF and the Department of Basic Education to discuss some of the problems teachers and schools in South Africa are faced with,” says Andrew Ruge, CEO of Mxit Reach. “We looked at a holistic approach, it was important to address the issues of quality education, safety and wellness of school kids.”

“Countries like South Sudan are looking to South Africa for the kind of innovation such as Ukufunda” added Nadi Albino, acting deputy director for UNICEF South Africa, who hails from South Sudan.

Nadi Albino
Nadi Albino, acting deputy director for UNICEF South Africa

Ukufunda is available on over 8 000 cell phones including smartphones and 2G devices, making it accessible to all. Ukufunda is currently in its first phase, where it’s only available to teachers for now. The second phase will focus on learners and the final phase, planned for mid 2015, will see it being made available to parents.

You’ll find the exact same content whether you are using a tablet, smartphone or feature phone.

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Users can access Ukufunda by downloading it from the apps section on Mxit. On the Ukufunda Teacher app teachers will find the following sections:

  • My Education Resources: Links to textbooks and reference material
  • My Safety and Wellness: Links to counselling and emergency services
  • My Calendar: A shared platform where teachers, principals, learners and parents can load and view events and tasks and receive notifications. You can add someone you know from your list of Mxit contacts or anyone using Ukufunda.
  • My Groups: Virtual communities where you can have discussions
  • My Classroom: Teachers can communicate directly with their learners
  • My Contacts: Connect with contacts in your school, area or district
  • The ANA Test: An assesment tool modelled on the paper version of the ANA test conducted by the Department of Basic Education.

The main focus of Ukfunda is the the Education Resources section, with are portals for both the teachers and learners where they can access the Nali’bali, Rethink Education, FunDza, Learn Xtra and Periodic Table portals containing content such as mobi books, study tips, the periodic table of elements. Ukufunda will also add government based content in the near future.

Parents will also be able to engage with teachers to find out what their kid’s are being taught, how they are doing in class and any other information they may want to know.

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But what about data and airtime costs? As much as Mxit is a data light service, not every learner, teacher and parent is able to always afford to buy data to load onto their phones. According to Mxit, they are looking at making it freely accessible by partnering with the local mobile networks.

Another issue is access to mobile devices. Although mobile penetration in the country is extremely high, not every single citizen owns a cell phone or tablet. Mxit Reach and its partners are investigating ways in which cell phone makers, mobile networks, corporates and the broader public can participate by donating older and surplus handsets.

Teachers, parents, organisation, or learners who have any suggestions for the Ukufunda developers can contact Mxit Reach as the app is an ongoing project that will consistently be updated and improved over time.

“With Ukufunda what we’re saying is it doesn’t matter if you are from a wealthy or disadvantage background, everyone has access to the same quality content,” says Ruge.