Hi-tech overhaul of SA education system will fall apart without strategic plan

Recently, the government announced that it was planning a major hi-tech overhaul for the South African education system. As an educational technologist who sees the tremendous potential of technology to radically transform education, I was elated.

Finally, the government was taking steps to bring the education system on par with other countries, giving our learners a fighting chance to become globally competitive. I was sure they would call in some of the country’s best minds to formulate a strategic rollout plan that would address our education crisis by leveraging technology to make quality education available to all kids, especially those in the deepest rural areas.

What would that strategy look like?

Of course, there would be a pilot roll-out at a number of selected schools across the country. That goes without saying because it is Change Management 101.

Concurrently, there would be intensive teacher training initiatives, a major update of the curriculum, and perhaps my ultimate dream would come true: that computer science would become a core part of the curriculum.

Apparently, that’s not the case. There is no talk of a strategic plan or change management.

No curriculum revamps, nor teacher training. What is this big overhaul? Handing out tablet PCs to more than 2000 schools across the country. What a disappointment. This is not going to go well.

First, let’s consider the cost: 23 000 schools will mean roughly 23 million learners. A decent tablet costs roughly R2000, bringing the total cost to around R46 billion. Factor in digital textbooks and logistics and the amount could easily double. That is a huge amount of money.

If investing that kind of money will solve our education problems, then it will be totally worth it. But spending that amount of money on tablet PCs is definitely not going to fix anything. Others have tried and failed, with disastrous consequences.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a plan to put an iPad into every child’s hands. The iPad would be preloaded with eLearning content. To accomplish this, they partnered with Apple and Pearson. The budget for the roll-out was estimated at $1.3bn (R18.1bn).

It was a highly ambitious project, and there was a lot of optimism. After all, all the ingredients for success were there: one of the most progressive school districts in the US partnering with one of the world’s largest and most beloved tech companies and a highly-renowned publisher. What could go wrong?

The trouble is, the project went south very quickly and, aside from a colossal waste of money, there were other serious repercussions: there was a whole lot of blame-shifting, lawsuits and even an FBI investigation.

But the biggest disaster by far was that classroom technology took a giant leap backwards.

People became skeptical about classroom technology. If these three power players couldn’t make a go of it with such a massive budget, then is there even a place for technology in the classroom?

Why did the roll-out fail so dismally? That answer is simple: the focus was on technology, not on people. The initiative was driven by the district officials and the vendors, but those who really mattered, the teachers, had almost no involvement in the planning phase, nor did they receive any training and mentorship. When the iPads arrived, they simply did not know what to do with them.

What’s really worrying is that indications are we are about to dive headlong into the same fire.

The right approach is to begin by asking “why?” Why are we doing this? What specific problem are we trying to solve? What are the desired outcomes?

Once we have this in place, the next question is “who?” Who are the major role-players who will drive this initiative? What skills would they need to make it a success?

The answers to these questions will help us to develop a strategic plan which will guide the roll-out. To mitigate risk, a phased roll-out will make sense.

Only once the strategy is in place should we focus on technology. Strategy should always drive the technology, never the other way around. You buy a device because you have a specific need. You never buy a device and then try to figure out what to do with it.

The latter is insanity.

The above approach can be summarised into what I call the “Four Pillars of Technology Implementation”: purpose, people, pedagogy and platform, where platform refers to the hardware, software and connectivity required.

It is my sincerest hope that our government takes heed to the massive failure in LA and steers clear of repeating their mistake. I know that handing out tablets sounds like a great idea, but in the end, when the initiative fails, the biggest victims will be the 27 million learners we thought we were helping.

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