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Technology in rural schools is not a magic bullet, but it is a good start

by Sarah Wild, December 05 2012, 10:19
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classroom rural education XXX  Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

IS THERE a silver bullet for South Africa’s crumbling education system? After spending some time in the rural Eastern Cape, my answer is an unequivocal no.

I spent a day at the Arthur Mfebe Secondary School in Cofimvaba, about 60km from Queenstown. Still lost? It’s about 135km from East London.

In short, it really is in the middle of nowhere.

I was there as part of a great initiative: introducing technology to help overcome some of the challenges in rural schools.

People often talk about technology being used to address societal problems, and yet for some reason South Africa has been slow to use it to address one of the country’s biggest problems: abysmal education.

Here are the most recent news pieces on it.

The Cofimvaba Schools District Technology Project — a collaboration between the national basic education and science and technology departments, and the Eastern Cape education department — is the kind of stuff techno-utopian dreams are made of.

Problem: department responsible appears incapable of delivering textbooks when and where it should.

Solution: pupils should get tablets and be able to upload their workbooks immediately.

(And when textbooks retail at more than R100 a piece, R1,000 starts to make a lot of sense.)

Problem: a number of rural schools don’t have electricity.

Solution: renewable energy and solar panels.

But the tragic realisation you will come to after spending a day at a rural Eastern Cape school is that technology is not enough.

Arthur Mfebe Secondary School highlights that.

We were shown lockers where tablets could be stored and charged; a Wi-Fi hub that would allow pupils to access all the material they needed; the water solutions for the tilled fields (it is an agricultural school); and a "ferticulture" tank in which water is mixed with fertiliser thanks to gravity.

On the way back to the school’s entrance, you walk past a building with a crumbling door frame, and an unpleasant smell. You walk inside to find pit toilets, doors that have come off their hinges and little ventilation.

"What is that?" you ask an official.

"Those are the toilets," the official replies.

"The only toilets?"

"Yes. It’s the mandate of the provincial department of education. They have to do something about it. National can’t do it. It’s not their mandate."

I stared with disbelief at the person for so long that I think it started to border on rude.

But then I remembered that the Department of Basic Education actually tried to fight legal action trying to force it to have a minimum standard for schools.

This school is one of the 46% of South Africa’s 24,793 public schools that have pit latrines.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has highlighted inadequate toilet facilities as a major reason why menstruating girls do not attend school, and that they increase the risk of sexual assault.

Read about what they are doing here.

Of even more concern was that I was told a number of times that this was one of the best public schools in the district. Many were allegedly much worse.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that South Africa’s rural schools don’t need technology.

Not only will it help address many problems, such as schools’ remoteness and the difficulties associated with teaching materials arriving late, but in an increasingly high-tech world, these children are also being even more disadvantaged because they are not "plugging into" these technologies.

Technology is not a magic bullet, however.

Children need toilets. They need food so they can concentrate. They need teachers who are familiar with their subject material.

It has to be a multilayered approach — and that isn’t just bureaucracy speak. I think rural schools and their pupils have been paid enough lip service.

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