Textbooks on tablets: The worst idea for government schools?

March 7th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EE Publishers

In his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Cyril Ramaphosa made a startling statement that set media a-buzz with criticism: “Over the next six years, we will provide every school child in South Africa with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device.” There are myriad challenges facing SA that make this idea seem implausible (data costs, crime, corruption, threatened electricity supply); but bad press won’t keep the plan from rolling out, so what will it take to make it a success?

Dr Lieb Liebenberg

I sought out Dr Lieb Liebenberg, an edu-tech professional, to hear his thoughts on the matter. Dr Liebenberg is the CEO of a proudly South-African company, ITSI – a provider of research-informed e-learning solutions to schools and universities in South Africa. He has been involved in learning research and development since 2006, has delivered academic papers on e-learning, and been published in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr Liebenberg agrees with the president’s sentiment that something drastic needs to be done to address the challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution. However, he also agrees with those who warn against an overly simplistic view that the mere adoption of technology will solve our structural education problems.

As an edu-tech company that has been successfully working within the South African education system for more than a decade, the company also knows that if implemented properly, technology can help radically transform teaching to better prepare students to compete in a technology-driven world.

What’s so great about edu-tech anyway?

“Technology can be used to make the teaching and learning process more efficient by overcoming certain problems experienced in the classroom. Print has its advantages, but it’s completely blind. You don’t know where your students are in the material, and you don’t know if they are understanding it.”

Dr Liebenberg said that a huge benefit of tablet learning is the possibilities enabled by real-time assessment and feedback. Teachers can view how much time a student has spent looking at the textbook and supplementary material in comparison with their peers, which can be presented as an “engagement score”. This creates a sense of accountability and transparency between teacher and learner.

Teachers can also administer pop-up questions to assess whether a class has grasped the desired concept taught in that lesson. This means a teacher can immediately understand if the lesson has achieved its outcome, and assess which concepts need to be redressed. Additionally, for learners who need extra help, supplementary materials can be made easily available. This means that slower learners aren’t left behind, and faster learners don’t get held back.

“Technology is not the focus. The focus needs to be on good, proper teaching. Technology can just provide the scaffolding for this. A teacher might not be patient enough or have the time to explain a concept ten times. But if they can put a great video in the book – something created by someone else like the Khan Academy – that student can watch that video on fractions as many times as they want. It’s about unifying the teaching and learning experience, and having all resources available in one place.”

But wont tablets be a distraction?

“I always find it interesting that the same parents who don’t want to give their kids tablets are the same parents who don’t think twice about giving them a smartphone – as if there’s a difference,” said Dr Liebenberg. “The moment you put a textbook on the device, people freak out. I am not denying that devices can be a distraction, but the point is that the students are already distracted. We should recognise that we live in a digital age, and we should be teaching children how to manage their digital space. Not allowing students to use a device for learning is like sticking your head in the sand. We need to teach kids how to use technology responsibly. We can’t expect children not to be part of the digital age.”

So what will it take for successful implementation?

  1. Ease-of-use

An important aspect to consider is how the information is presented on the devices. “The textbooks cannot be separate from the learning management system. The experience can’t be fragmented with materials spread through different platforms. It needs to be tied together neatly with easy navigation. A learner’s working memory should be focussing on the content, not trying to remember where everything is.” Additionally, Dr Liebenberg mentioned that schools across different backgrounds should not be given different platforms – a well-designed system should be usable by every student in South Africa, with the same materials.

  1. Multi-level support

ITSI operates on a subscription-based model where schools pay for onsite support and training – it is not lucrative for the company, but support is integral, said Dr Liebenberg. “Firstly, teachers have to be trained on the technology before it is implemented. Secondly, we offer onsite support once a week. We also have a helpdesk.” In terms of students, the first three weeks of the school year are dedicated to training them on the platform so that the teachers don’t have to. “In addition to that, we identify ‘champions’ in the school – maybe the IT person – who is extensively trained to offer support,” said Dr Liebenberg. “You have to offer various levels of support so that ultimately, the teacher can focus on teaching and not on tech support.” This is a tall order for a government-led programme, but Dr Liebenberg believes the right partner can make this happen. It is absolutely critical for the success of Ramaphosa’s vision.

  1. An education focus

“My concern is that this project is going to go out on tender and won by some big tech company that has very little focus on education, and doesn’t have a record in sustainably delivering these kinds of solutions. Government needs a proven product with the right support model and training. There are no shortcuts. You can’t just give people devices. You can’t dump technology and expect magic to happen. This isn’t a corporate social investment intervention where telcos can come and give tablets with free data to make themselves feel like they are making a difference. This perspective is damaging to edu-tech because it doesn’t actually cater for the education environment.”

  1. Made for SA

“The solution has to be locally-built, because it has to be made by someone who understands our challenges. How will it work when connectivity is lost? And it has to work with current infrastructure because everyone is saying 5G is coming, but we have to use what is already working in Khayelitsha and Soshanguve.”

Regarding device theft, Dr Liebenberg said that the project will rely on customised, government-issue tablets that stand out, are branded, and have security chips. “Theft of tablets can be solved. When you order devices at scale, you ensure that you brand them in such a way that they are unmistakably government property – not just with a little Department of Education sticker. The name-and-shame model will work well if you do it right, so that everyone knows that the adult walking around with a bright yellow tablet has stolen it from a child. If you order a batch of tablets for a country, you have the power to ask for it to be exactly as you need.”

  1. The right implementation team

“I think Ramaphosa’s idea should be supported, but it needs to be done in the right way. You can’t just expect magic to happen. The team that he puts together needs to include people with experience of the hurdles involved with the implementation of systems like these. That’s what really worries me, who is on that committee? Technologists? Academics? We need people with hands-on experience in education.”

Maybe it isn’t the worst idea… Maybe

Considering Dr Liebenberg’s perspective and advice, perhaps Ramaphosa’s vision is not such a bad idea. If executed correctly, rolling out education devices indeed has the potential to turn around South Africa’s much-criticised education system, and allow students of all backgrounds and education levels to access learning materials. But will it be executed correctly? Sorry to say, I am not holding my breath…

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