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Computerising the classroom
©IT Review

Jil Hrdliczka - educator and managing director of K-Net, a technology network for kids and teenagers says:
"Research suggests that children willingly put in more effort in an electronic as opposed to a text-drive medium. Word processors allow them to write more fluidly. And although no studies have proved it, students who use spreadsheets have a sounder grasp of arithmetic principles."









Computerising the classroom

The education system is in crisis. Schools continue to reel under the pressure of inadequate facilities, too few teachers and expanding classrooms, while universities tackle stormy political protests amid accusations of falling academic standards, as well as financial constraints.

Despite the disarray, it is reassuring to know the issue is receiving attention. Concerned organisations are offering solutions to put mass education back on track, the most prevalent being the intervention of information technology.

While companies in the recent past have held up the computer as the panacea for all classroom ills, contemporary thought differs slightly. Not only is it financially impossible to supply every student with a computer - it would require the entire national budget to supply ever Soweto student with his or her own PC - but also unnecessary, says Roger David, marketing manager for Isis. His company's approach to the mass education crisis is holistic. Isis is not looking at computers, but technology as an intervention mechanism in education; in much the same way that technology has revolutionised backing in the country. Where would we be without automatic teller machines, he asks.

Armed with capabilities in real-time systems development, and motivated by the ideal that education is a key component in the development and stabilisation process of the RDP, Isis tackled the issue by identifying areas in education needing intervention.

The first was to use teachers effectively. Extensive research has revealed that the problem is not the limited number of teachers in the school's employ - a teacher can creatively and effectively teach groups of 35 - but administrative overload. "We needed to develop a system which would lighten the teacher's involvement in unnecessary reams of administrative work," says Davids.

Another issue prompting upheaval in schools is accommodation. In Gauteng alone, reports indicate a shortage of 800 classrooms. Isis maintains the dilemma can be solved by developing a system which would take teaching to communities in informal classrooms - whether a community centre, home, church or temporary structure - with out degrading the quality and delivery of the lesson.

Technology is pivotal to Isis's analysis of the education crisis. It foresees a multimedia classroom incorporating CD-ROMs, database and communication techniques as central to its improvement. "The teacher would also be in a position to prepare lessons using audio-visual means and running them via relatively inexpensive methods such as TVs and VCRs.

Technology rescue "Its 'technology rescue' would essentially put teachers in a position where they could concentrate on their real mission - to teach, using technology to enhance their teaching skills and process."

Addressing the question of student communication, Isis has developed a mechanism where students are assessed on a real-time basis without having to write formal exams. "As the lesson progresses, the student is automatically assessed. And there is immediate feedback. The teacher is aware during the lesson which pupils are grasping the concepts and which are not. From there, teaching methods can be adapted."

Distance learning via satellite and telecommunication, which although electronically based could be solar powered, is another area Isis has researched extensively.

Isis' approach to the educational crisis was not to place a computer terminal in front of every pupil and attempt to replace the teaching process. "We approach the problem for the viewpoint of enhancing the teaching process and delivering quality mass education on a cost-effective basis. "We were mindful of the fact that budgets were under pressure - issues such as housing and basic living conditions would most probably absorb the largest slice of government revenue. In our business as a software house we've adopted a basic business philosophy, the ability to cost effectively add value. You do not spend money on technology unless it adds value."

However, says Davids, savings cannot always be measured in rands and cents. "What might appear expensive in the short term saves cash in the long term. Our innovative methods in the education arena will achieve just this. Initial outlay might weigh heavily on the pocket, but a few years down the line schools will reap the benefits of effective teaching methods."

Isis's mass education programme, Mass-ed, is a student-centred system focusing on the teachers and technology. It comprises a cost-effective keypad, which has the intelligence to prompt students to respond to questions posed during the lesson.

A software package which runs on a relatively low-cost PC - Davids quotes his system around R400 - displays the student's responses in histogram fashion with extensive roll-down capability. "The teacher can assess responses on a group and individual basis."

The system was developed to interact via audio-link through a TV system. "The teacher is able to teach to several locations simultaneously to incorporating a conventional video camera and transmitting the lecture to several locations." This link was taken a step further with satellite and telecommunication methods beaming lectures to remote locations. A pilot site in St Albans is effectively employing this concept. "Lectures which are presented in the morning are recorded and replayed to a satellite school in the afternoon."

Satellite learning While Isis has several test locations, including a possible joint venture with the University of Pretoria to implement distance learning via satellite, it is presently negotiating with the Gauteng government to install this technology in regional schools in an effort to create quality and equal education for all.

But not everyone is in favour of computer-based learning. A selection of academics still question computer technology as a solution to the education crisis.

Rashid Bagus, and education lecturer at Wits University, says: "I am a sceptic. The computer in education is a solution looking for a problem. For every piece of research which says computers are effective in facilitating the learning process, another says they are ineffective."

Arguments in favour of computer technology he casts aside as propaganda by computer and software vendors whose livelihood depends on getting as many computers into the field as possible. However, Zakheni Computing's Gideon Makatu says: "Even if we do not agree with the Isis initiative, because of the cost implication of installing and maintaining those systems, there is no disputing the fact that if we are to meet the future economic demands, computers must become and integral part of our education system. They offer several advantages over the traditional 'chalk and talk' method. It is a fast and efficient way to learn, especially in research, using the Internet - you don't have to go through every book but simply press a button to recover data. It is also a gateway, opening up dictionaries, encyclopaedias, interactive stories, education games and references at the touch of a button."

Robin Camhee, headmaster of St Theresa's school in Coronationville, who is running the Write to Read programme developed by IBM and Eduquest, is adamant computers are essential in the learning process. " Computers accurately reflect the world in which children live. They learn to compose on the computer, print out drafts, correct them and present the final draft to the teacher. That's the way it's done in the real world."

The programme facilitates every pupil according to his or her abilities. Camhee explains: "Pupils work at their own pace. Independent thinking and problem solving is part of the computer-based learning process. Pupils progress according to their abilities, making mixed ability classes a real possibility. Remedial and 'normal' classes can effectively be combined."

The traditional teaching method which hasn't changed in the last 800 years - "it's like an oil tanker, taking a long time to change course" - presents many problems, he says. "Children don't learn effectively because they are frustrated. They are either being held back or the pace is too fast. With computers, problems in the classrooms eliminate themselves. Even discipline is no loner a problem. If the kids aren't talking, they are learning."

Jil Hrdliczka - educator with and managing director of K-Net, a technology network for kids ad teenagers using new 486DX units with 8Mb of RAM and Super VGA low radiation monitors - believes computers offer several advantages in the learning process. " They bring a topic to life. Pupils see it, hear it and watch it happening."

Research has also proven that the computer facilitates the learner. "Research suggests that children willingly put in more effort in an electronic as opposed to a text-drive medium. Word processors allow them to write more fluidly. And although no studies have proved it, students who use spreadsheets have a sounder grasp of arithmetic principles."

Self-directed learning Computer-base learning is not restricted to schools. The arts department of Wits University recently invested in a computer laboratory to promote computer-based education. Dr Gudrun Oberpreiler, co-ordinator of humanities computer project, maintains the computer equips students with vital skills. " It's self-directed learning. It caters for individual needs, allowing students to progress at their own pace."

While the computer laboratory is used for an array of topics, its prevalent function is for a language application with software donated by a Canadian university. "For students whose first language is not English, completing this program offers substantial benefits in their studies."

And with computer know-how vital for a successful career in today's workplace, students cannot afford not to learn computer literacy skills, she says.

IBM have also recognised to advantages of the "resource-based" classroom. Sandy Cooper of IBM's research and teach programme, explains that a group of educationalists under the direction of Professor Merlin Mehl recently " revolutionised" the traditional "chalk and talk" approach with a classroom redesigned into learning centres. "Every learning centre is equipped with a computer as one of its resources, prompting teachers and students away from the authoritarian, rote-type learning to computer-based, multi-sensory interactive learning."

"It's exciting and stimulating: the student is an active participant in the learning process."

But, the scepticism of Wits Education's Bagus aside, another downside of computers in education is cost.

Supplying students with equipment bites deeply into already strained schools budgets - the hierarchy of needs put textbooks as a priority.

In South Africa the scenario is aggravated by the fact that 70% of school-going Soweto pupils do not have access to electricity, and of theses 80% live in squatter conditions. How will they gain access to computer equipment? And if they do, will they be able to use it effectively with trained staff readily at hand?

Yes, say various educationalists, who insist that donations from many organisations are ensuring equipment reaches the poorer institutions. Grant Nupen, director of development at St Albans says: " Even if the equipment is outdated, a plan can be made to put it to good use. It's a start and it's usually better than having no equipment at all."

Faced with the challenge of creating training systems for skills empowerment, the Computers Society of South Africa has joined forces with Siemens Nixdorf, Eskom and African Engineering International to promote the Soweto Technology Project (STP).

Founded in 1990 by educationalist Tom Baloyi, it offers an in-service training programme as well as a self-funded extra-mural programme which provides motivated and able secondary school pupils with an opportunity to take up technical careers, develop skills and acquire sound academic attitudes.

Baloyi says: "The Society's members have a wealth of knowledge and practical experience of IT and advanced technology developments, particularly in the fast changing IR arena."

In this vein, Zakheni's Makatu comments that government involvement in training programmes is of utmost priority, although he does not foresee it happening in the near future.

"Our total expenditure on education and training compares favourably with some developing countries. But we fall behind countries with leading economies such as Singapore. Essentially, the governments and private sector underinvest in training."

He believes that government should "start the ball rolling" by offering subsidies to companies which invest in training. This is especially vital in view of statistics, which show that between 0,5, and 0,5% of payrolls are spent on education and training - of which most is invested in white institutions.

"In the accounting arena, the Eden Trust is established to serve bursaries to those interested in studying accounts. Why can't the IT industry establish a similar body? The IT industry has to get involved in training people. It students are leaving technikons and universities insufficiently trained for the workplace."

Whether we agree or disagree with computers in the classroom, he says, the truth is that we live in a world of technology. "For this reason we have no choice but to encourage and support the IT influence in education. It's the only way the people in this country will get ahead."


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Date of update: 18 February 2009