How technology supports literacy initiatives and levels the educational playing field in South Africa


By Alfie Hamid, Regional Manager – Cisco Corporate Affairs, Sub-Saharan Africa

I'm often amazed at how my six-year-old son is learning how to read and write. While all the traditional tools are available to him, it's technology that really brings the subject matter to life through rich, interactive media.

As we mark International Literacy Day on 8 September 2015, we've come to realise that we cannot speak about literacy without also speaking about technology. Literacy used to be about reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. But in order to survive in today's digitised world, pupils also need to be technologically literate for computing and in order to analyse and synthesise digital data, to communicate, investigate, access and use information and to think critically about new forms of messages inherent in new multi-media.

Literacy is a challenge in South Africa. A recent study found that, by the time many South African pupils reach Grade 4, they are functionally illiterate. By the time they reach Grade 5, 13% of pupils are considered illiterate and are unable to score more than four out of 20 on a comprehension exercise. And when they reach university, only one-third of pupils could be regarded as ready to cope with the typical reading, writing and reasoning demands they’ll face in tertiary study programmes.

Technology can help. Teachers need to be provided with the tools and skills that will help them to teach effectively. An example is the Western Cape Education Department's Khanya Project, which fitted more than 500 schools with smart education technology, providing more than 22,000 pupils and teachers from disadvantaged areas with a sound technology foundation.

It can make subjects like mathematics more exciting and interesting for pupils. Rather than using flashcards to get pupils to memorise their times tables, teachers can use gamification to encourage learning through play. The same is true for reading. When learning how to read on a tablet pupils are able to select a word they're not familiar with and have a voice correctly pronounce and define the word, in an engaging and stimulating way.

In secondary schools technology allows for collaboration and encourages pupils to interact with each other and share whatever it is they're working on. By collaborating on assignments, and being connected to the internet, pupils can learn from each other and improve in groups.

Technology provides equal learning opportunities to pupils who have learning-related challenges such as autism and hearing difficulties. Cisco, in partnership with Deaf Aid, has developed sign language for IT terminology so that children and adults who are hard of hearing can become computer technicians.

Equipping teachers with the skills they need so that they are comfortable using technology in the classroom is a massive task. This is why Cisco has partnered with the Department of Basic Education and Vodacom to equip Teacher Resource Centres with Cisco's Networking Academy program across South Africa. To date 15 Cisco Networking Academies have been set up within these Teacher Resource Centres.

Cisco has also established 36 Community Knowledge Centres in underserved communities where pupils who have failed or dropped out of school can go to learn basic IT skills.

Literacy and technology can no longer be separated; they work hand in hand and together have brought about a revolution in learning.

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