Why technology can be SA education’s great equaliser

By Stefan Botha, CEO of the Optimi Group

Education is a basic human right, enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. And since 1994, government has been working hard to ensure that this is the case, with the biggest share of the country’s National Budget being spent on education every year.

Many of these efforts have paid off. Literacy rates have increased from 82.4% to 95% in 2019, according to data from UNESCO. In 1994, 58% of public-school learners in Grade 12 passed matric, while in 2021 that figure was 76.4%.

But while we have made progress, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on where we can still improve — especially when it comes to digital education.

When the hard lockdown commenced on 26 March 2020, schools across the country temporarily closed, severely interrupting the learning of South Africa’s 13 million schoolgoing learners.

Amid a lack of resources, only 11.7% of schools in our country were able to offer remote learning options, according to a report from Stats SA.

Fast-forward to 2022, and learning seems to be returning to normal, with most schools going back to full-time schedules at the start of this year.

However, the easing of lockdown restrictions and return to normality doesn’t mean we are out of the woods just yet. It is common knowledge that our country’s education system is struggling, with the large inequality gap further exacerbated by the pandemic. Many learners will continue to struggle with their schoolwork and will likely never catch up to their peers in the better resourced schools. 

It is here where I think technology can be deployed to help improve learning outcomes in our schools. Changes in the way we interact with information means that the classroom is just one place where our children will be educated in the 21st Century. If there’s anything that we’ve learnt during the last two years, it’s that technology, digital learning, and the access to information all have a key role to play in reducing inequalities in our education system. Therefore, we need to seek ways to embrace it more.

Closing the digital gap

In 2020, only 7% of households with individuals aged 5–24 had internet access at their homes, according to Stats SA. Moreover, approximately 67.8% of households in South Africa didn’t have access to laptop or desktop computers when the pandemic hit.

When it comes to mobile internet access, the picture is different with up to 66% of households having access to this type of internet. However, mobile broadband has traditionally been expensive in South Africa and therefore limited.

What is encouraging is that government is currently on a drive to auction off spectrum for mobile broadband. Over time, this will hopefully drive down pricing and boost access to internet connectivity, presenting greater opportunities for access to information, including online learning.

It’s clear that we also need to get more devices into the hands of families out there so that learning from anywhere can take place, and this could present opportunities for greater public-private partnerships.

We have experienced the benefits of online learning during the pandemic. It has opened new possibilities in education, and – with the growth of connectivity and improved access to devices – online learning can become a great equaliser in our education system. 

At Optimi, we continue to provide learners from pre-school to adults with the opportunity to learn via digital channels.  And while this journey is one that is still evolving, we are seeing exciting results in terms of improved access to quality education, better learner engagement, and lower cost of providing learning to our clients.

In the 21st Century, this aspect of our lives will only become more important, and there’s no doubt that we as a country can go a long way by focusing more of our energies on improving digital learning.

In the end, this will benefit our society, help reduce inequalities and grow our economy. This is something that we all want as we reflect on Human Rights Day this year.

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