LEARNING will never be the same again. South Africa’s schools can expect to be dragged into the digital age as major technology players, including Apple and Samsung, are pushing projects aimed at digitising classrooms.
Two weeks ago, the Johannesburg-based applications developer Core Group launched the textbooks store app, ZA Books.
This means schoolchildren in dozens of schools around South Africa will have electronic access to a variety of textbooks.
Potentially, this will serve to reduce the costs of printing and cut the loss and damage associated with printed textbooks.
However, the effect of these initiatives is limited by the knowledge needed to exploit them and the ability of the teachers leading this learning revolution. With technology already making its way into classrooms, there is a risk that teachers — who might not be as tech-savvy as their pupils — may be left behind.
Coming at a time when some leading private schools are already making tablets something of a requirement, Core Group’s app will allow schools access to digital versions of textbooks produced by some of the country’s major publishers.
While South Africa is taking baby steps to digitise learning, many other countries are making solid gains, with South Korea expected to migrate from print to digital by 2015 and Brazil expected to do the same by the year 2018.
Among those welcoming ZA Books is the director of independent school Reddam House, George Balios. "This is scratching the surface of what can be done through digital learning. It is also great for disadvantaged schools and we need to move forward," he says.
According to the Core Group, integrating technology into learning will help the local publishing industry make its content more accessible, making the iPad even more relevant to big publishers and the basic education system.
Apple already has over 80,000 apps available for education.
Speaking at the launch of Core Group’s app, spokeswoman Taryn Hyam said the app store allowed schools to get local educational content aligned with national syllabuses.
The textbooks were for pupils from grades 1 to 12, were aligned to the national curriculum and had normal reading titles, she said.
Major publishers including Oxford, Pan Macmillan, Cambridge University Press, Shuter & Shooter and Maskew Miller Longman have books available on the app store.
PUO Educational Products CEO Nthabi Sibanda says textbooks could, through the app store, reach more students faster, thus eliminating logistical problems.
Last month College Campus, a provider of higher learning material owned by listed education provider Advtech, unveiled a digital learning offering for students.
College Campus, along with Kalahari.com, will this year provide its students with Samsung tablets containing pre-loaded content from students’ courses.
The college issued a statement in which its MD, Genevieve Allen, says the initiative is a first for higher learning in South Africa.
"All diploma students, who sign the 2013 registration contract and pay their deposits or settle in full, will receive a Samsung Galaxy Tab2, 8GB with Wi-Fi. They can upgrade to a Samsung Galaxy Tab2 P5100 10 16GB with Wi-Fi by paying R1,000," Ms Allen says.
Scott Giles, a director of SG Resources, says while incorporating technology into education is important, it becomes even more important to train teachers to use the technology to its optimum potential.
"The biggest downfall of some of the schools is that while they are sponsored, they are only sponsored enough for the children, and we need to ensure teachers are covered as well. Some teachers are only being introduced to technology in their jobs for the first time," Mr Giles says.
Mr Giles hopes to meet Gauteng Education MEC Barbara Creecy and her department next month to set up a Teacher’s Media International platform online.
This would give teachers access to training videos on best practice, support and how to observe and assess teachers.
"We realise that this process will take a number of years to complete and thus have started with a single province and the Gauteng Department of Education has shown the most interest and enthusiasm," Mr Giles says.
He says a tool such as the interactive smart board — an interactive board often used in mainstream curricula around the world — is already being tried in a high school in Ermelo in Mpumalanga to considerable success to teach children in multiple locations at once.
"If we’re going to change connectivity in digital learning, it’s important to get the technology players involved. If teachers are connected and we can use these tools well, the possibilities are endless," he says.
According to Core Group, there are 180 schools in South Africa that have integrated iPad devices into everyday learning. Some 120 of these are both private and government schools while the other 60 are iSchools, developed to bring the benefits of Apple’s technology to disadvantaged schools.