In January 2015, the Gauteng Department of Education launched the “Big Switch On” Paperless Classrooms Programme which introduced e-learning to seven Gauteng township schools. These “schools of the future” were equipped with tablets, Wi-Fi connectivity, e-learning content, digital training and technical support in order to help students achieve digital literacy before entering the workforce.
“The majority of our learners come from poor households and many of them are from child-headed households”, Slovo school principal Maggie Makgopa said in a press release issued by the Gauteng Infrastructure Development Department. “This (Paperless Classroom) will go a long way in assisting them to complete their education and change their personal circumstances.”
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The success of the Gauteng pilot project inspired the second phase of “Big Switch On” which aims to include all South African non-fee paying schools with a 100% matric pass rate, minister of basic education Angie Motshekga announced in July.
The minister proposed that exposure to Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) would breed a culture of information management as learners become “creators of knowledge in their own right”, and that these skills would help them succeed in the contemporary information age economy. Motshekga welcomed the initiative as an inclusive, non-racial education system using technology as a “game changer that will assure equity to any learner irrespective of their race, class or gender”, and added that this is “the beginning of a radical shift to intercede and break recurring shackles of poverty”.
Starting in 2016, each learner in participating schools will be equipped with a specially programmed tablet to use in class and at home. Every teacher will receive a laptop, and all classrooms will be fitted with computers and interactive “smart boards”. These innovations will be accompanied by infrastructural refurbishments.
The Paperless Classrooms Programme will extend to fee paying public schools over the course of four years, as the department of basic education plans to have all South African schools ICT-enabled by 2019.
Similar initiatives are currently being conducted in the Western Cape. When contacted for comment, a technical advisor and development project leader at the Western Cape Department of Education told Memeburn that the province has already launched a digital transformation programme independent of “Big Switch On”, installing WAN and LAN systems in previously disadvantages schools as well as a small selection of fee paying schools throughout the region.
More than two hundred Western Cape schools have received internet access, and the numbers are growing daily. The presently nameless programme is being implemented in various phases, starting
with connectivity and progressing to the provision of individually operated devices.
“We’re starting small,” the project leader reported. “First we give them fibre or wireless internet of just 10mbps, and then increase to 100mbps and ultimately 1gbps. Our first priority is to get all schools connected.”
Irrespective of leadership and origin, both initiatives are a significant step in the process of creating a nation of digital natives.
Image: Emfuleni Municipality via Flickr.