South Africa is battling significant challenges when it comes the literacy and numeracy skills of its learners. So much so that this week the country is focusing on that very issue with National Book Week, along with it being World Literacy Day on 8th September.

This focus on books is misplaced, however, according to Dr Corrin Varady, CEO of IDEA Digital Education. Varady notes that greater emphasis should be directed towards identification and development of digital solutions in tackling literacy and numeracy skills.

In order to find out what can be done in that regard, we recently sat down with Dr Varady to discuss how best to approach this problem.

Hypertext: Before we dive into the topic, can you explain your work at IDEA and how you got involved in the education space?

Dr Corrin Varady: My relationship with education started over a decade ago, when I founded the World Youth Education Trust (WYET). Through WYET, we are able to work with communities across East Africa to create programs to support students including a low-income private schools and counselling centres, a football league for female former child soldiers, numeracy and literacy schools, and thousands of education sponsorships.

This work made me realise that all the opportunities I had, came down to one thing: my access to quality education.

It is a basic human right that all children deserve, and education is the only investment that you can make in a human that can never be taken back.

Developing a generation of young, highly educated innovators, means solving a lot more than our matriculation pass rates. It will help us lower unemployment, increase governance and accountability in all aspects of our society and drive our economy.

So I see quality education as not only a fundamental right for every individual but also as a collective benefit in what it delivers to us as a nation.

Hypertext: With the country’s literacy and numeracy rates at worrying low rates, why is the focus on physical resources like books misplaced in your opinion? Is a lack of access to adequate resources not the problem at hand here?

DCV: I think we need to also recognise that while we can provide greater access to books – we still need to work on the skill of reading because there is a difference.

On one hand, there is a push to read more but the fundamental step is that we need to get students to read better. That means basic literacy and reading for meaning.

That is where there is a bit of a bottleneck: proficiency in literacy is easily correlated to communal and familial literacy because if your parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles have a fluency in reading, then they can support and nurture this you. But let’s say that isn’t the case, then creating these educational and reading mentors is not so easy.

That is where technology can help solve this challenge.

We should be looking at how technology can help our students read better and then further increase access to the wonders of stories, books and creativity.

Hypertext: If government were to reassess the value of National Book Week, how do you think its efforts would be better placed focusing on?

DCV: I think National Book Week has value. I think the value is in raising awareness and continuing the dialogue around the wonders of reading, and the challenges that students are facing in being able to read.

However, we need a longer-term, sustainable understanding that none of the challenges start and stop inside of a week.

Public and private sectors need to, firstly, recognise that the social challenges we are seeing in unemployment, unrest, and economic downturn are directly related to what is happening to students in their foundational years of education during primary and secondary school.

I often see people smile sympathetically when I talk about young students and their need for literacy. It has become a feel-good program, rather than a necessity.

So my priority is to illustrate how our failures to address the literacy challenges has a very real, economic and social – personal and collective impact.

Hypertext: What are some of the digital solutions that you think can assist South Africa in terms of improving its literacy and numeracy levels in a smarter way?

DCV: Firstly, using technology is a no-brainer in assisting with our foundation education, be it numeracy or literacy.

This is because it increases access to lessons, reading material and provides feedback democratically and without discrimination. It also can be used to help parents to have challenges in literacy, sit with their children and watch them learn.

This observation alone will assist parents in helping their children.

IDEA runs a numeracy and literacy program called MyIDEA that helps children from the beginning as they learn how to read and write as well as count and undertake basic arithmetic.

Then, in partnership with government institutions, we are seeing an emergence of digital books and stories available for students who can practice their reading.

Hypertext: Much of the time government looks to the enterprise space to assist with digitally-led initiatives. Does this have to be the case or can those in power look at other means to embrace digital for its learners?

DCV: I think a public-private partnership is the most efficient solution to the technology innovation question. The public sector must drive policy and support but private sector intrinsically is set up to respond and adapt to the needs of students and teachers.

Innovation is not static and therefore maintaining and driving constant change is well suited to the private sector. It is what we do and it is how we survive.

Furthermore, our metrics of success are different; while on the one hand, public policy must drive the issues around access and equality, private sector must drive quality and outcomes.

Hypertext: Digital solutions are often thought to be more expensive than traditional methods, especially in terms of the cost of hardware, along with requiring necessary training of teachers. Is this in fact the case or is this problem just not been tackled properly?

DCV: Digital solutions that teach students how to teach themselves may have a greater upfront cost but what is the return on investment around this?

I would argue, far greater. And in saying that, devices and infrastructure may be more expensive but the sustainability and scalability of digital content is then exponentially cheaper than traditional means of delivery.

Plus, we need to recognise that our current government has clearly stated that they are supporting a digital transformation over the coming three years.

For me, that is exciting and presents an enormous opportunity. What we do at IDEA is to look at how we can help governments convert this hardware into learning outcomes. As we work on this together in partnership, we will see that the return on investment from the digital investment produces better outcomes, and ultimately in a cheaper, more democratic way.

Hypertext: A lot of emphasis has been placed on STEM-related skills of late. Can embracing a digital model improve the agility of government in reacting to the necessary skills that need to be fostered?

DCV: Increasing STEM proficiencies are the focus of governments and Ministries of Education globally.

Why? Because we need to accept that building our foundational education is the only way we can achieve and develop our creative and critical thinking.

Problem-solving, higher-order thinking and, ultimately, employability will come from driving the core pillars of our education and being careful that new curriculum or digital literacy isn’t our only focus.

Hypertext: If implemented properly, how long do you think it will take for SA to drastically increase its literacy and numeracy levels with digital solutions?

DCV: The biggest hurdle is the “if implemented properly” because we see positive outcomes within weeks of a student having access to great digital tools, be it in numeracy, literacy or any subject matter.

The journey towards a blended learning environment that has correctly integrated technology in the education system is going to be where the delays are most felt. But we are making progress.

I believe that with a digitally-focused President at the helm, and with the public sector working with companies such as ours better every day, we will see increased benefits over the next three years. There is no doubt that South Africa will lead the way in edtech transformation on the continent.

Hypertext: Is IDEA or yourself in conversation with government on how it can better embrace digital, and if so, what are those discussions yielding so far?

DCV: We have a productive and daily interaction with both provincial and national governments. And there is an immense amount of work being done across these departments to improve the delivery: both in terms of the hardware investment, teacher training, as well as feedback to private sector around future policy and vision in order to plan our innovations accordingly.

The big area that both government and the private sector are trying to work is in the proof-of-concept phase. A lot of funding and time is spent in creating pilots and concepts where measurability and impact studies need to be established from the beginning to help companies understand the needs and wants of the governments and at the same time, help companies invest more efficiently in what they deliver in evidence-based pilots.

To IDEA, a healthy and transparent relationship between us and the government is the only way we will be able to achieve a scalable impact on those who most need it most.

[Image – Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash]