By Tafi Mhaka
A cognitive study conducted at Blair Athol School in Kromdraai, Johannesburg by Debbie de Jong – a learning specialist – found technology has the potential to have a positive impact on second language English language learners at primary school. The study, which analysed visual perceptual development, visual motor integration, basic concepts, expressive vocabulary, comprehension, conceptual thinking, shapes and colours, numbers and counting, noted that “drastic improvements were achieved by the children with regards to stabilisation, pencil grip and control as well as postural endurance on task behaviour” after learners were exposed to an ICT environment.
Two groups of learners from impoverished backgrounds participated in the six month-long study. The first group were taught by a teacher who had access to a SMART board, a software solution called Eduquest and a facilitator to help the teacher use the information technology. The other group had no access to the above-mentioned technology. While all the learners struggled to comprehend basic instructions such as “sit down” and “turn the page”, and could not answer the question “what is your name?” at the beginning of the study, the group that had access to the technology solution at hand displayed “mature behaviour and responded well to tasks and questions” and became more inclined to participate in tasks and help each other out. The study observed “drastic improvements” in stabilisation, pencil grip and control as well as postural endurance on task behaviours and a markedly reduced need for translations: “The learners needed no translation at all when instructed to perform a certain task whereas the children in the control group classroom constantly needed their teacher to translate and intervene for them with their tasks”.
What is the significance of this study? The best performing schools in the matric examinations in 2015 were in Gauteng and the Western Cape while the worst-performing schools were mostly rural schools in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. And, while rural schools face many challenges like poor basic infrastructure, few material resources and no electricity in places, the lack of access to information and communication technology is widening the divide between the haves and have-nots in basic education, which makes it difficult to bridge the gap between rural learners and urban learners, which in turn, is making it more difficult to address poverty and social immobility in rural areas. Both pupils and teachers in rural areas lack access to the Internet at school and hardware like tablets and PCs. Pupils in the rural areas also lack access to qualified and experienced teachers as most good teachers opt to teach in urban centres.
In 2012, Equal Education filed an application in the Eastern Cape’s Bhisho High Court against Motshekga, and 12 other respondents including nine provincial ministers of education, the minister of finance, the Eastern Cape government and the national government in a bid to ensure minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure are set. Of the roughly 25 000 schools in South Africa, 3,544 have no electricity, 401 have no water supply at all, 913 have no toilets and 2,703 have no fencing. The vast majority of schools – over 21,000 in both cases – lack libraries and science laboratories, while 19,037 schools do not have a computer centre.
In 2013, the Eastern Cape High Court ordered Minister Angie Motshekga to publish norms and standards for school infrastructure.
The provincial of Gauteng embarked on a R17 billion digital classroom campaign to provide pupils with information and communication technology in 2015.
Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi spelled out his department’s plans to the media a day before the official launch of the project at Boitumelong Secondary School in Tembisa, Johannesburg on Tuesday, 13 January 2015.
“Tomorrow morning in this school, we are officially burying the chalk board, we are officially burying the duster, we are officially burying the chalk. “Gone are the days when they have to write in exercise books and hand in the assignment.”
“We are making this investment so that we can compete with the best countries. We were influenced by the thinking of South Korea, which is the best in terms of children who can read, write and calculate. I want to radicalise education in the township so that they can compete with any other learner,” he added.
In addition to tablets, pupils received 4G dongles to keep them connected at home.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa stressed that education is the strongest weapon in the fight against poverty. He quoted the late Nelson Mandela at the official launch of the project at Boitumelong Secondary School in Tembisa.
“It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation,” he said.
“Ultimately, it is you, the learners, who need to be responsible for your future by taking seriously the opportunities that now exist. Your commitment to learning today will determine your success tomorrow,” he added.
However, this is of little comfort to learners who live in rural areas around South Africa. Daniel Linde of Equal Education believes that access to technology should not be the sole focus of the government.
“It’s not necessarily the best direction of funds,’ he says. ‘If conditions for learning and teaching were better, if there were flushing toilets across the province, if schools had reliable electricity and sources of water, all of those things could lead to learners wanting to come to school more and a more conducive learning and teaching environment.”
In a policy brief released by UNESCO titled ICTs in Early Childhood Care and Development, which was published in December 2012, the organisation says it supports the introduction of ICTs in early childhood learning.
“Innovative early childhood care and education (ECCE) teachers, researchers and educational authorities are often reporting creative ideas and examples of the potential value of ICT in terms of children’s play and learning. Based on their growing experience, they assume that exploiting new digital technologies in ECCE can help children develop their competencies and personalities in effective, authentic and attractive ways.”
But UNESCO calls for caution and advises stakeholders to carefully manage the transformation of learning environments and systems.
“Research literature and also our own experience from various national and international activities proves that the process of integrating ICT into ECCE should be supported, supplemented, and monitored by a simultaneous evaluative research. This holds both if the process is conducted in a top-down style, e.g. as a national or regional developmental project, or as a bottom-up initiative of one or a few innovative ECCE centres in a country or a region.”
UNESCO further says a variety of factors may affect the introduction of ICT in early education. These include a lack of professional development for teachers, who may receive basic training in using computers, but not much training in complex digital literacy and new pedagogies. Teachers, parents and education authorities may lack confidence in the potential of ICT to enrich the process of learning and fail to oversee a successful integration of technology into early learning processes. Teachers might also find themselves lacking technical and other support systems. Additionally, both students and teachers might lack vital study material and learning resources as computers and access to the internet are just a small part of the learning process. UNESCO is keen to highlight that the digital learning environment must be all-encompassing in principle: learners should have access to ICT in a universal manner; that is, learners must have access to lCT tools from an early age right through to college or university. Education authorities are advised to adopt a clear ICT vision and policy for early childhood education and provide instruments to support and implement ICT education.
“ICT standards for ECCE teachers, curricular supplements, assessment framework, learning resources, collections of good practices and other supportive frameworks. Stimulating initiatives, national and regional projects, professional development programmes for educators and various forms of the permanent support of their work must be conducted continuously.”
Authorities should facilitate the professional development of teachers and monitor any safety concerns and gender issues that may arise as well in the implementation of ICTs, says UNESCO.
Reaping the benefits of the introduction of ICT in early childhood learning and indeed in all learning environments will take much more than Internet connectivity and the introduction of tablets and computers in schools as the entire education system will have to be thoroughly re-evaluated and enhanced to meet the needs of what will essentially become a new 21st century model of early childhood development and education.