Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE divide between wealthier and poorer schools in terms of the quality of education offered is well documented. Only about a quarter of learners attend schools that perform satisfactorily by local and international standards. The rest are in schools that perform below standards, particularly in maths and science.

The reasons for this are complex and vary from school to school. But they boil down to a combination of resources, teacher content knowledge and the abilities of the teacher to use both in their teaching practices. Some schools have this "magical" combination in abundance, while many others, far too many others, are lacking.

Understandably, digital education has been heralded as a solution that could level the playing field. At its best, digital education can make good quality education accessible to larger numbers of learners more quickly. That is the rationale behind the government’s recent plan to accelerate the roll-out of information communication technologies (ICTs) nationwide in the basic education sector, as part of Operation Phakisa. The initiative is intended to improve the co-ordination, sustainability and measurability of what have so far been fragmented ICT projects whose impact on education outcomes is unknown or unclear, if not minimal.

However, like libraries and science labs, ICTs are just one part of the combination.

It would be unimaginable to outfit a school with Bunsen burners and microscopes, and hope that the mere presence of these technologies would spontaneously, on their own, improve the quality of education the school offers. The same applies to ICTs such as tablets, apps, interactive whiteboards and internet access.

If teachers in schools lack adequate subject-matter knowledge and the skills to integrate technological and other resources into their teaching practices, then access to the technology in itself is unlikely to improve education. What is more likely in such a scenario is that the technologies will replicate and grow existing inequalities. Because the schools that outperform the rest currently and are considered "functional" are better positioned to integrate technology into teaching and learning practices.

So far, this integration of ICTs into teaching and learning practices has yet to happen on a large scale in SA.

Based on stats from the Basic Education Department, 28% of schools around the country are "using computers and other devices to enhance teaching and learning". However, using these technologies to enhance teaching and learning is not the same as integrating them into teaching and learning. The former involves using ICTs to augment the old ways of teaching and learning, whereas the latter requires using ICTs to teach and learn in new ways. The latter requires teachers who have the skills and confidence to use ICTs to innovate and respond to the unique learning needs of each child in their care.

The difference between the two is, in reality, profound. So the proportion of the country’s basic education system that can be called genuinely digital is probably far less than 28%.

Given this, what can be done to bridge the divide?

To start with, we need to broaden how we think about, implement and measure the extent and quality of digital education beyond the metric of access to ICTs. It bears repeating: access to ICTs is one of the steps towards digital education, but it is by no means enough on its own.

Once we take this more holistic view, it becomes clear that teachers must be the focus of all digital education initiatives.

Teachers are the guides in each learner’s education journey and must have knowledge of the landscape and the skills to navigate it using the tools and technologies at their disposal. Yet, at national level, only 26% of teachers have basic ICT skills and 7% have intermediate skills, according to the basic education department. These skills levels are not enough to allow teachers to use ICTs innovatively in their teaching practices or to make learning a personalised, collaborative experience, as envisaged in the department’s Guide for Teacher Training and Professional Development in ICT.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to increase rapidly the number of teachers receiving training in ICTs, alongside initiatives to expand in-school access. At the same time, the training should put teachers on a clearly mapped-out journey towards growing their skills and knowledge in ICTs, the subjects they teach and teaching methods to the extent required to usher in true digital education.

This is a massive task, so it helps to remember that the digital education journey ahead is incremental.

Learning ICT skills is a lot like learning a language. Mastery comes through using the language, or skill in this case, to navigate the world — not just the classroom. Yet many teachers have never, for instance, used Skype to talk to a distant relative or social media to hold their local councillors accountable.

Helping teachers take this first step of taking ownership of the technology and using it to improve their own lives outside of the school environment has proved a solid foundation for the next step of using these technologies in a classroom setting.

Only when we have teachers in classrooms everywhere with this foundational experience of ICTs will we be in a position to build towards the mass adoption of digital education.

• Watson is CEO of Via Afrika.