Training teachers to use elearning material will improve basic education in South Africa

When I talk to people about my company’s approach to technology in education, I’m often asked: “Does e-learning do more harm than good?”

ELearning holds enormous potential to catapult the education system in this country well into the twenty-first century. ELearning can revolutionise teaching and learning, and improve the overall quality and accessibility of the education system. But there currently exists a gap between what e-learning could do and the reality of what technology in education has achieved so far.

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Some of the projects that have made news in recent years have, unfortunately, not been the most thought through. Many have relied on the presence of technology in the classroom to, in and of itself, improve education. However, just as a butterfly is not an advanced caterpillar, e-learning is not just different teaching.

In fact, technology, if not used in teaching correctly, can hinder rather than help. Some educators may still argue that technology is a distraction, rather than an aide, in the classroom. But this really reflects a misunderstanding of how technology and education “collide”. Somewhere along the line, an expectation may have arisen that computers by themselves would improve learner performance — the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education director Andreas Schleicher infers as much to Sean Coughlan of the BBC, based on a recent OECD report.

In truth, technology serves better to enhance teaching, not replace it. It provides a platform for individual learning and evaluation, and in that way can fundamentally improve and enhance the acquisition of 21st century skills.

But this requires that certain stumbling blocks be navigated around – among them a perception that technology will replace teachers. Let’s be clear: Teachers remain indispensable, for now and the future. The challenge is to help teachers understand HOW to use the technology to drive their education objectives.

A few years ago Via Afrika began rolling out Via Afrika Digital Education Centres (VADECs) — repurposed shipping containers filled with Via Afrika’s suite of e-textbooks and education apps, tablets and a computer, and equipped with WiFi internet access paid for by Via Afrika. We knew the VADECs by themselves were not enough. So we also trained the teachers in the schools they were introduced to, not only how to use the technology and useful software in their everyday lives, but also how to incorporate the technology into their teaching methods and practices.

The results speak for themselves. Each of the three initial schools where the VADECs and holistic teacher training were introduced performed better in literacy and numeracy in that year’s Annual National Assessments – the Department of Basic Education’s diagnostic of the education system. One school in particular improved more than the others in part because, as we later found out, one of the teachers in that school opened the VADEC to learners on weekends.

Drawing on these lessons, Via Afrika launched the Via Afrika Digital Education Academy, which provides training to teachers on tablet-based digital education. We provide four courses over 36 two-hour sessions, covering everything from the basics of how teachers can use the tablets in their day-to-day lives, to using tablets in the classroom to change the way they teach, to providing each learner a personalised learning experience.

What I am saying then, to answer the question of whether e-learning does more harm than good, is that like all new things, elearning has had and will have peaks and troughs. Early on, people generally had huge expectations of the effect technologies like tablets and apps would have in education, perhaps too huge. That might explain the reservations some have expressed about bold initiatives such as the Gauteng Education department’s paperless classrooms.

But we are moving — at least on the Gartner hype cycle — towards something that resembles enlightenment. Pockets of best practice and productivity are beginning to emerge. We need to expand these pockets so that everyone is working effectively. Then e-learning might at last break out from its cocoon to reveal itself to be a brilliant, new and beautiful creature.

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