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SchoolNet SA is Learning from Experience

Janet Thomson

SchoolNet SA is a not-for-profit NGO, operating in South Africa since 1997. In the early days we attempted to cover all aspects of ICT in schools by sourcing and providing hardware and software as well as training teachers. Our mission has always been to create communities of teachers using ICT to enhance teaching and learning. These days we concentrate on teacher development with a particular emphasis on ICT integration and on underserved schools. These two areas often appear to be incompatible, as I will try to explain.

What we do

Our most supportive funders are Intel and Microsoft but we also have other partners such as Oracle, Vodacom, Commonwealth of Learning, SITA, Nokia, Multichoice, Peermont, Adobe, Uniforum, provincial departments of education, and a number of universities. We could claim that SchoolNet has trained vast volumes of teachers, which we have, but we do not like to fixate on numbers. We would prefer to consider how effective our initiatives have been. Hit-and-run interventions are not our style; we like to prolong our relationships with schools.

Sadly we often fall into the trap of chasing numbers to satisfy funding targets, sometimes losing contact with schools after training. This is the reason why we have recently embarked on a SchoolNet SA premium membership drive with the intention of engaging with individual teachers and encouraging them to stay in touch with each other. Our focus on social networking through our Facebook page, newsletter, blog and twitter (@SchoolNetSA) accounts all contribute to this aim.

The biggest challenge we face is in encouraging teachers to improve the way they teach. This applies to teachers across a range of schools. At the e-Learning Africa conference, Tom Power from the Open University UK said that the only way there could be any hope of changing existing pedagogies was to provide new classroom activities involving new technologies. This is a philosophy to which SchoolNet SA has always subscribed.

Our strategy for growing teachers into more advanced stages of ICT use is an incremental one. Teachers are often unable to make the leap from their own ICT literacy to its classroom application where they engage learners in the use of ICT in the curriculum. To combat this, we designed a range of courses to cover each stage of maturity with ICT, from basic literacy to project-based learning and the higher levels of innovation.

The 3 key pillars that uphold this strategy and that should be in place from the moment that technology is introduced to the school are leadership, technical support, and a culture of professional development. The Partners in Learning ICT Leadership for Education Managers course introduces school leaders and local ICT government officials to a range of crucial educational ICT issues.

The Partners in Learning Student Help Desk course is an effective course for computer clubs of learners. This is relevant to schools where there is no option for first-level trouble-shooting other than costly companies which are even more expensive if the school is remote.

Schools that work hard at staff development find that the most effective method of sustaining teachers’ motivation in ICT integration is through peer coaching; pairs or small groups of teachers planning lessons together and sparking off ideas has an instant and positive effect on the quality of teaching and learning.

SchoolNet SA is just beginning to venture into m-learning, training teachers to track students who are participating in the NOKIA MoMaths project using MXit and Moodle. We see a viral uptake of any new project using MXit – e.g. HIV 360 had 39 000 teenage users within a couple of months.

SchoolNet has always tried to contribute towards national ICT discourse and policy and we are grateful that South Africa does have in place the e-Education White Paper (2003) and the Guidelines for Teacher Training and Professional Development in ICT (2007). Implementation of these policies on the other hand has been slow.

Lessons learned

  1. Educational Technology interventions often forget about the “educational” part and consider it to be completed once they have installed the technology. This results in teachers not being trained and consequently hardware remaining unused.
  2. We must split training sessions and revisit schools to allow for a period of practice and self study before the trainer returns to the school to consolidate.
  3. Teachers complain that training sessions are too short and that they do not have enough time for training or for practice.
  4. Cascaded training, where multiple training of trainers takes place, does not work; it dilutes learning and quality is jeopardised. If a project requires a high degree of scale, trainers should be trained by a national master trainer and thereafter train directly in schools themselves.
  5. We are not reaching the knowledge deepening level of the UNESCO Framework. Intel Teach project based courses are at this level, where the emphasis is on higher order thinking skills. Insufficient teachers are completing Intel courses; only two provinces have invested seriously in Intel Teach. If we study the TPACK theory (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) it becomes clear that teachers in many of our schools have challenges in each of the 3 separate knowledge areas let alone in the 4 sections where these areas intersect.
  6. Teachers are unaware of what is available. From the Gauteng Department of Education evaluation we conducted with SAIDE, it became evident that not only do teachers have little knowledge of what resources are available to them online, but they are unaware of the array of educational software provided on their own school networks. This is directly due to insufficient teacher professional development in initiatives that are technology driven.
  7. Access for learners in high schools is reduced when schools decide to offer external exam subjects such as IT and CAT because these monopolise the computer rooms. Only schools with alternative access such as two computer rooms or a mobile lab should consider offering these subjects.
  8. High school teachers often argue that they cannot integrate ICT because they have to complete their syllabus, instead of realising that ICT can greatly assist to achieve this.
  9. The disconnect between teachers and learners is growing. Schools need to be connected and pedagogy has to adapt. Children are online and becoming more connected, living in an exciting world of communication and “instant” everything. Then in classrooms, teachers say, “open your books and turn to page …. “ A high dropout rate should not be a surprise. As the saying goes, “If children do not learn the way we teach then we must teach the way they learn.”
  10. Beware of Interactive Whiteboards (IAW). IAW have proliferated in schools despite the expense and yet in many instances this has resulted in teaching methodology reverting back to being teacher-centred.
  11. Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk, Child-driven Education, illustrates through the cognitive studies that he has conducted. that children learn more effectively through discourse in groups. Mitra takes “child-centred” one step further to become “child-driven”.
  12. At SchoolNet we are sceptical of educational software that does not require 21st Century learning skills and wary that some m-learning projects use merely drill and kill content.
  13. It is important to commence ICT initiatives with the school leadership because they have great influence over the future take-up of technology by teaching staff.

What we recommend

We recommend sustainable plans for staff development in schools; ICT planning that is focused on the teaching and learning needs of educators. Teachers require lifelong learning opportunities.
Connectivity in schools has to be provided and at a reduced, or no cost, to the school.

We are seeing the value of android handheld and mobile devices with charging trolleys because these satisfy the need for learners to be involved, hands on and not just one learner at a time; they have to share the technology and share ideas, just as Mitra advocates.

Mobile phone use in schools has to be accepted. Teachers can collect second hand phones and allow working in groups to ensure that learners without phones are not excluded.

Obviously the one recommendation that SchoolNet is going to make time and time again is that there has to be greater investment in teacher development. The business community has to be strategically involved; they must specify the skills they require school leavers to have so that teaching is forced to adapt to developing those skills.

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12 Responses to “SchoolNet SA is Learning from Experience”

  1. Antoine MIAN

    "It is important to commence ICT initiatives with the school leadership because they have great influence over the future take-up of technology by teaching staff. " In Côte d'Ivoire, a Regional Director of Education is putting in place a great experience for the use of ICT in education. In fact, this manager will experience from this year's enrollment of students live, with payment of fees by mobile phone to some areas. In addition it aims the establishment of a website for homework.

    • Dear Antoine
      Thank you for your comments; the initiative taken by the education director you mention sounds innovative and courageous in its context.
      There is a notion that by forcing schools to engage in digital communication only with their local government officials and to no longer use paper when submitting required data, that it will eventually impact positively on the overall uptake of ICT within the school. I think this can happen. It can also be argued that an efficient administration does influence the general level of effectiveness in the classroom. This brings us to our main concern which is ensuring that principals and school management understand the potential of ICT to enhance teaching and learning.

  2. What authoring tools are teachers trained in? Are the contents online or offline?

    Is each of the trained teachers given an authoring tool or they have to share it as in many cases such tools are really expensive.

    • It was difficult to respond to this question because we do not teach “about” any specific authoring tools – or any specific software at all – our focus is on how ICT can support or enhance learning rather than on the “how to” use a specific technology type of learning experiences.

  3. Key skills/knowledge.

    How to use TinyMCE/CK type Editors to make web pages

    How to draw diagrams and illustrations in eg Inkscape

    How to use .jpg, .png, .svg appropriately.

    How to prepare images for use in different circumstances (eg using GIMP)

    How to record, edit and clean up audio eg in Audacity

    How to record simple video eg using a smart phone, edit and upload to a streaming service eg You Tube

    How to link web pages to video streaming services.

    If you can do those things and pass on the skills to learners, they can produce pretty well any multimedia presentations for e-portfolios etc. I did this one quite quickly recently. http://bit.ly/mjslFP Only required an Android Smartphone Ubuntu based laptop and internet access.

    Use IT User qualifications as a focus for learners with web based moderation and the feedback to teachers to keep them up to date and integrate CPD with the process of learning. Do it all with free and open source resources and you will save sufficient money to sustain it.

  4. ScottKipp

    This is a great article; thank you for sharing your experiences and insights.

    I couldn't help but be reminded of Papert's 1993 follow-up to Mindstorms, "The Children's Machine" when you mention the problems encountered in use of computer labs (your point #7). Whatever your opinion of Papert, he makes a great point there about the consequences of placing and using technologies in isolation from other curriculum subjects, which resonates with much of what I think you're saying.

    The 2009 PISA results ("Students Online") also point to the critical need for developing pedagogical practices that truly leverage ICTs to support learning *across* disciplines, which is something being incorporated widely into definitions of digital literacy.

    And so I am curious about how this pedagogical integration process is going in South — do the schools you work with have organized fora for sharing best practices / lessons learned with each other (e.g. do they share & connect through their Moodle work, or through their MXit profiles)? Or perhaps the sharing occurs even less formally? Or is that dissemination role something that SchoolNet takes on as a central hub?

  5. Dear ScottKipp
    thank you for your kind remarks and encouragement. I have no problem with Papert and completely agree with your assumption that what I am saying is aligned to his assertion that technologies should not be isolated from other subjects.

    We used to have teachers sharing more than they do now. There was an Educators’ Network initiative that relied on peer and mentor support via email only and involved 300 schools for a number of years as from 2001. We subsequently developed our own SchoolNet “Communities” site for teachers to share lesson plans or just pictures of practice and quick ideas. However we now advocate that teachers use Microsoft Partners in Learning Network but we do not feel as if we have sustained teacher fora well enough lately and so that is one of the reasons why we have just established the concept of having SchoolNet “premium members” – at no cost to teachers -and feel that perhaps this will encourage teachers to start sharing more resources with each other and help to develop further innovation in the classroom.

    So in answer to your question, no we are not making sufficient use of available platforms for interaction and sharing but we are endeavouring to improve on this – and yes SchoolNet is trying to perform a disseminating role.

  6. Thank you for this article. In my interaction with a number of people. I have found as you correctly pointed that the educational part is not considered. Emphasis is on the type, capacity and specification of technology and this why I have recommended that there is need for all the stakeholders to be brought on board so that various academic lenses can be used to come to a meaningful discourse. Is it possible that there has been a higher adoption rate from people with technological background than those from educational ones?

  7. Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop Per Child has compared computer labs and computer literacy programs to having a room with books, pencils, and paper in it. Then we would allow children in for an hour or two every week, but not allow these materials to be used in classes or for homework. What kind of literacy would you expect to result?

    We at One Laptop Per Child, Sugar Labs, and FLOSS Manuals are hard at work in the directions you suggest, including our Spanish-language mailing list, OLPC-SUR; translation work for a number of countries; and the Sugar Labs program for integrating software into curricula in our Replacing Textbooks program. There are many others working on Open Education Resources (OERs, from PDFs of existing materials to integrating software into the lessons. Discussions similar to this one are going on in many places, and I have put links to some of them on our OER page.

    Uruguay's Plan Ceibal and the Open Learning Exchange/OLPC Nepal programs have developed extensive teacher training materials for their One Laptop Per Child programs. I am trying to recruit translators from Spanish to English and Nepali to English to make these more widely available. (Our Spanish-speaking translators are currently fully occupied with English to Spanish work.) Other countries such as Rwanda are also developing training programs.

    We welcome individual contributors to any of these efforts, and would be delighted to discuss possible partnerships and approaches to funding.

  8. If you aim to make teachers and learners self-sufficient using free authoring tools from the internet, you will a) make them technologically more capable for life and b) save the money in technology costs to sustain keeping them up to date. CPD has to be integrated in everyday classroom practice and that is not difficult to do using the web with appropriate planning. The only technology cost beyond some knowledgeable people is in the internet connection and providing a web browser hardware platform.

  9. you are right. but how ensure the quality for all.
    when each teacher is taking own ride with students. the quality and the cost are related.
    how your institution can be supporting and at the same time require 1Quality for all.

  10. Philemon Kotsokoane

    We spent a few sleepless nights responding to our Acting Head of Department for the North West Education Department to come up with an e-Education Strategy. We referred to two strategies, Western Cape and Free State Education Departments. We based the strategy wholly on the White Paper on e-Education. He unfortunately does not seem happy.

    Will anybody who has a copy of any e-Education strategy kindly avail that to me at my email address: pkotsokoane@nwpg.gov.za


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