Why giving tablets to every South African school kid is a dumb idea

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently stated in his 2019 SONA address that every school pupil in South Africa will have a tablet device within the next six years.

“Over the next six years, we will provide every school child in South Africa with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device,” said the president.

He added that the government will start the rollout of devices at disadvantaged schools located in poor communities.

While the idea may look good on the surface, giving every child a tablet is not a solution to South Africa’s education problems – and to put it bluntly, is a dumb idea.

No evidence of improvement

Studies have shown that giving learners tablets and e-readers does not benefit them in terms of improved learning, and the roll out of devices to pupils is not a cost-efficient solution.

As documented by education expert Nic Spaull, evidence shows that ensuring all high-schools have functional computer labs – as opposed to each child having a smart device – is a much more efficient solution.

The area of “one-device-per-child” has been studied extensively in various developing countries and has consistently shown that “providing technology to individual learners is not the most cost-effective method of improving learning outcomes”, stated a report by Spaull.

In fact, in “every country where it has been implemented, it was deemed a failure”.

Crime

The problem of crime is another issue, particularly in South Africa, which affects the rollout of tablets to schools.

In a perfect world, we would be able to dismiss the threat of criminals and implement education plans without the fear of them being torn apart by thugs – but we do not live in a perfect world.

The threat of IT equipment and hundreds of tablets at a school being stolen is high, particularly at schools in areas with high crime rates.

This was the case in January when the new Menzi Primary School – equipped with digital boards and tablets – was robbed within a week of opening.

185 tablets were stolen, along with 8 laptops, 2 projectors, 3 desktop PCs, a TV, and R500 cash.

This was not the first time a smart school in South Africa has been targeted by criminals. In 2015, it was reported that the Gauteng Department of Education was withdrawing 88,000 tablets from seven township schools due to a rise in the number of burglaries.

The money and time put into rolling out tablets to schools, only for them to be stolen days later, can be better spent in ensuring learners have a safe environment to study in.

There are bigger problems

Tablets in schools may eventually become the norm across South Africa, but before this happens there are many issues which must be addressed first.

According to News24, at the time Ramaphosa announced his tablet rollout plan, 4,000 schools across the country still used pit toilets.

Giving a school smart devices before it receives safe and hygienic ablution facilities has been called a poor prioritisation of funds, along with money not first being allocated to desks, chairs, text books, and fans or air conditioning for well-built classrooms in all government schools.

Another burning issue is the state of teaching in South Africa, a matter which hurts the development of pupils.

Providing a tablet to a learner and teacher will not wipe away a teacher’s inability to do basic maths or teach language comprehension, nor will it help a child who does not know how to read or write several years into their school career.

In 2018, it was reported that South African teachers cannot pass basic maths and English tests.

The majority of teachers who took part in a sample survey on the national school curriculum “were unable to identify the main idea in a paragraph, or do a simple maths calculation”.

The following findings were observed:

  • 5 of 22 primary school teachers were able to identify the main idea in a simple paragraph.
  • 6 of 22 were able to do a simple calculation in maths.
  • Teachers scored as low as 10% for English first additional language and 5% for maths.

An allocation of resources to better train and evaluate teachers on a continual basis would therefore be more beneficial for students.

The hardware factor

Then there’s the hardware factors and the requirements which come with deploying tablets.

Tablets intended for schools are not going to be iPad Pros, they will be budget or mid-level devices which are aimed at the education sector.

Besides not having the most responsive touchscreen or powerful processors, budget devices present a host of challenges.

Battery life will be a concern, as after a year or two of being used every day, they are likely to require a battery replacement. Will battery replacements be available, and will there be budget for this?

If there is no intention to replace batteries, then every desk in every classroom must have a plug point present so the tablets can be charged when needed.

Smart devices will also break or fail, and replacement tablets must be available at short notice. Failing this, replacement parts and repairs will have to be provisioned for.

Software is another concern. Do the tablets come with a service agreement that they will receive operating system and security updates for their lifespan?

Even big smartphone brands which run Android battle to keep their devices up to date with the latest software following their launch. The issue became so bad that Google launched the Android One programme in response – promising users at least two years of OS updates for their device.

With the challenges South Africa’s education sector faces, prioritising tablets for students is the government trying to fix issues at the wrong end of the chain.

You don’t give a shaky building a new penthouse in order to stabilise it, you first make sure its foundations are solid.

Now read: Beware making these common IT security blunders

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Why giving tablets to every South African school kid is a dumb idea