FOUR years ago, Brescia House School, an independent Catholic school for girls in Bryanston, Johannesburg, recognised the need to embrace technology and provide an e-learning environment for students.

Its view is that excellence in education requires offering the right tools and environment and to facilitate and advance students’ skills and knowledge.

The fact is that 21st century pupils are born to technology. No matter how modest or traditional a household may be, children are constantly exposed to and challenged by devices and a way of thinking in an economy based in technology. For schools to meet pupils’ minds and educational needs, teachers must learn how to adapt this technology, and use it in the classroom to engage and challenge students.

At Brescia House School the approach is to use of up-to-date technology that encompasses all aspects, including social media. The students are allowed to interact on Facebook and Twitter during their breaks, and they use this medium for sharing school-related information. In the secondary school atrium a flat-screen TV serves as a digital notice board, while the Wi-Fi zone ensures students can connect, communicate and research using the internet.

In a paper published last year, the Africa Institute of SA spells out the direct benefits of the use of ICT in education. First, exposure to ICT allows pupils to develop skills that will give them an edge in an ever-increasingly technology-saturated work environment. Second, the introduction of ICT into the school curriculum allows pupils to become creators of knowledge in their own right — for example through conducting research for a school project on the internet and then also having to produce, say, a PowerPoint presentation.

Furthermore, the institute has found, pupils who continue to use ICT in doing their assignments and projects begin to cultivate a culture of personal information management, independent learning and working without supervision, communication skills, teamwork and research skills — all valued in the global workforce.

Many of the textbooks used at Brescia House School are digital, and projects and note-taking are faster due to the connected classroom. All students in secondary school, from Grade 8, work with laptops and the junior primary school has introduced iPads in the Grade R to Grade 3 classes. While the young students have fun doing various exercises on the iPads, their computer classes are educating them on the full use of IT in their lives.

This year, the senior primary school broke new ground in education by investing in the Promethean Active Table — the first of its kind in Africa. It is a table-top sized tablet at which six students can work at a time. The team activities augment their collaboration skills, and the full use of interactive media helps them to make creative choices.

"Access to technology around the clock has helped the students to be more organised," says Benedikte Nott, headmistress of the secondary school. "They have access to (e-mail software) so they can plan their days better and access information immediately in class. The use of smartcards allows them access to security doors and printers, to take books from the library and to buy at the tuck-shop."

However, the best technology cannot make a difference without a skilled and professional teacher who has been trained to use it. Teachers need to be comfortable enough with these tools so they become a transparent part of the learning process. As much as technology is a driving factor at Brescia House School, the pupils still need to master penmanship and read books. The senior primary students use fountain pens to ensure cursive writing skills.

ICT also enhances the development of teaching instruction by teachers. Research conducted in South African secondary schools shows the use of ICT in schools helped teachers to administer and manage their work more efficiently. Moreover, teachers were able to work faster and communicate more effectively with their colleagues.

The Africa Institute of South Africa says the research at secondary schools has shown benefits to pupils: an increase in motivation; greater classroom participation; enhanced creativity; improved knowledge and skills; greater acceptance of responsibility and higher self-esteem; and greater collaboration among pupils.

Research in global best practice has found that the role of a teacher has evolved to where it involves not only teaching, but being a facilitator of information flow. At Brescia House School the training of teachers is a continuing and regular process to ensure they are at the cutting edge of new trends in IT education.

"Going digital means you’re constantly learning because the technology changes so quickly. We are involved with a lot of webinars and seminars and, in setting up, we visited the US and Australia to get an idea of how countries at the forefront of e-learning were making it happen in their schools," says Lyneth Crighton, ICT co-ordinator at Brescia House School.

Research in South Africa and in Africa has shown the use of ICT can influence and improve the productivity and efficiency of teaching and learning.

"Ten years ago," says Ms Nott, "we had pencil, paper and overhead projectors. Today the 21st century classroom lets us create a learning environment richer, more engaging and more customised to any given student’s needs than ever before."