Books versus tablets in South African schools?
Posted by Michael Wolf on June 16, 2015
Earlier this year, the Technical Association of Pulp and Paper Industry of South Africa (TAPPSA) has asked Michael Wolf a couple of questions for their journal around e-Learning and technology in South African classrooms.
TAPPSA: What are the implications of the new ‘e-learning’ programmes being rolled out by South African government?
Michael Wolf: The recently announced strategy of Western Cape Educational Department promises to roll out a number of components that are critical for e-learning in schools over the next 5 years. These entail mainly infrastructure including high-speed, real-time wide area network (WAN); provision of local area networks (LANs) in schools; new laboratories and technology-rich classrooms (smart classrooms); and online digital resources that are made available to all pupils, parents and teachers.
Learners need to be connected to the sphere of our world where electronic communication and learning are prevalent. Electronic tools have created access points for lifelong learning which poses a huge opportunity for developing societies. It would be difficult for kids to participate in the so-called knowledge economy without having exposure to technology at early age. It is imperative that electronic learning systems (which include devices, software systems and relevant content) are available to our learners. However, a careful implementation of technology is crucial. E-Learning should not simply mean the conversion of text books into electronic format, solutions must make provision for the real selling points of electronic learning, which include the facilitation of electronic “peer to peer” networks, global access to peers, experts and learning content, flipped classroom, tracking of personal learning paths, self-assessments etc.
TAPPSA: Are we doing our children a disservice by promoting e-learning as the only way of teach and learn?
Michael Wolf: I would say this is true. However, I don’t know a single person who would claim that. Electronic Learning systems will never be the only way to learn and teach. Learning happens in many ways through the entire life of a person. We learn by self-directed play, hands-on experiences, guidance from parents and teachers, reading books, exercises. Electronic systems offer an ever growing set of tools which support various learning formats and strategies. A tablet computer is something like a “Book 3.0” as it not only allows a learner to read, it can also be used to communicate, to tap into a greater pool of learning material and to record how a learner is progressing over time. However, in a classroom scenario I would never promote a “tech-only approach”. The term “blended learning” stands for a healthy mixture of classical teacher class setup supported by electronic tools. Kids should definitely learn to write with a pen if only to properly develop fine motor skills.
TAPPSA: Have any studies been done in South Africa around any of the above.
Michael Wolf: Not enough. I am aware of a few pilots and trials with tablet computers, but there have also been some interesting experiments with cell phone based learning. Obviously, there is a lot of global best practice with regards to the use of electronic tools in classrooms, however, I believe these have only limited relevance to our very specific situation in South Africa. There are many aspects of electronic learning which need to be looked at, which concern the question of devices and interfaces, the question of the electronic content or didactic approach and last but not least the testing of various features offered by electronic tools as explained earlier, which have never really been tested in class room environments. For example, what happens when a South African primary school class gets electronically connected to a German primary school. We explored this questions in one of our Formula D projects.
The implementation of electronic systems has many challenges and each school needs to be carefully assessed in terms of infrastructure, staff capacity and capability amongst other factors before solutions are implemented. I don’t think there is a one fits all solution, however, this fact alone gives electronic tools a general advantage over text books as content can be changed more dynamically in response to specific needs of learners or schools.
TAPPSA: What research has Formula D done around e-learning/paper learning?
Michael Wolf: At Formula D we are convinced that design and technology will be a deciding factor over success or failure in our schools. The real question we need to address is not IF we need technology in our classrooms, but HOW we need this technology to work. To make technology really work in our classrooms we need to allow teachers and learners to come to the table and participate in the design process. This is why Formula D created a Not-For-Profit initiative, the Learning Innovation Design Lab (www.learnlab.co.za), which aims at building partnerships with schools to experiment with innovative learning technology. The initiative started in 2014 with an initial focus on Game Based Learning. Learning Games are not solely restricted to electronic media, but since our kids spend a lot of time playing computer games, we realised the potential of using electronic games for learning. We hosted two afternoon activities over 2 school terms at different primary schools in Khayelitsha and Cape Town Centre. In one of the activities we got primary school kids to design their own computer games in collaboration with a German primary school class in Berlin using a project blog and live chat to communicate. In the next years we will explore other topics like “personalised learning systems” or “learning with augmented reality”.
TAPPSA: In a power-constrained country with load shedding a daily reality, how does Formula D Interactive’s technology operate when there is no electricity to charge or power for the devices. Are we not adding to the power crisis by rolling out more technology that requires electricity to function?
Michael Wolf: There is not much in this country that works without electricity. Even printing presses wouldn’t work. Should the electricity crisis prevail over the next years, which seems a possibility, schools would do well to make provision for solar or wind power to cover the basics. As said earlier, a blended learning approach would allow for a flexible use of tools and the ability to switch to alternatives if electricity is not available. However, devices like tablets which have high potential in South African schools can bridge standard load shedding schedules with the on-board battery supply. Although a reality, the electricity crisis should not inform how our learners should learn best. If the current electricity crisis will not be dealt with as a priority we’re in much bigger trouble than the question of technology in our schools.