Wednesday, 4 March 2015

ICT4RED Research adventures part 1: Education of choice

I am a PhD student at the University College in London. I have lived and worked in South Africa for seven years. I am on my way to Mvuzo Junior Secondary, a school in the rural Eastern Cape province of South Africa in which each learner and teacher has access to a tablet device connected to the Internet via the school’s WIFI network. The contrast between the school’s socio-economic setting and its way of teaching and learning couldn’t be stronger – fascinating stuff for a PhD. Right now, I couldn’t care less about this though. I am hectically staring on my cellphone waiting for the YouTube app to open. Google map tells me I am 1h42 minutes away from my destination – more like 1h42 minutes away from anything! Although I must admit that my rental car’s tire did chose a rather convenient place to deflate: coming from East London, it quit 5 minutes before the Great Kei River Pass. The views up here over the mountains are amazing and the altitude means I should get a 3G connection after all to access a YouTube tutorial on how to change my car’s tire.


Four hours, a fully successful tire change experiment, and a semi-successful Odyssey to receive a new tire from the rental car agency later, I smile as I pass the scene of my earlier incident – I didn’t really expect to drive more the 500km every day over four weeks without a little mechanic glitch, did I? Also, I know that some teachers in the schools that I am visiting spent an equal amount of time on their daily or weekly commute. Let’s face it, the Cofimvaba school district is rural and even the next town – by the name of Queenstown fittingly – does not really deserve its suffix. Cofimvaba is not the destination of choice if you are a teacher or a learner in South Africa and the constant headlines about Eastern Cape ‘education refugees in the country’s other provinces don’t help much either.

Cofimvaba school district: To turn or not to turn?! 

Mvuzo JS, as the other four schools that I have visited (Gando SP, Bangiliswe SP, Khwaza SS, and Zamuxolo SP) have rising learners’ numbers though. Their teachers attend Google summits and meet MECs. Classrooms have a whiteboard and a projector. Lessons are facilitated via PowerPoint and chances are you will bump into learners on your way to the school either mapping their community using GPS technology or recording the inflation rate in primary goods sold by local businesses. Teachers proudly rename their schools as ‘University of Gando’ and ‘Mvuzo Institute of Technology’ – in their words, ‘it is us how know about this technology, it started here in Cofimvaba’. 

Financial Maths lesson at Mvuzo (follow @fincaluvoz)



Much has been written about the impact of the ICT4RED initiative on learning outcomes; the innovative training style featuring an earn-as-you-learn badge model; as well as the 21st century teaching strategies communicated by the project. This is well-deserved but neither was the reason I got excited about the project and sought permission to use it as a case study in my PhD research. In my understanding, ICT4RED supports in particular teachers to lead the kind of life they have reason to value. ICT4RED through the provision of a status symbol (that is a Galaxy 10” Tablet in rural areas) to teachers, through connecting teachers with each other and the wider educational community of practice, through the facilitation of an individual process of technology mastery and thereby earned ownership, has allowed teachers to create new opportunities for themselves. To me, this is the most exciting part of the ICT4RED story.

Technology is all about opportunities – good and bad. The interviewed teachers feel for example that they have more choices in how to teach with the tablets allowing them to access a wider range of educational materials and teaching strategies. Teacher feel like they have more control over their professional tasks being able to prepare lessons at home or during the long commute to work. These educational opportunities are complemented by new ways to use information and to communicate. One teacher shares lesson plans through the tablet with her former university roommate, who now teaches in Botswana. Another teacher stays in contact via Viber with her PhD-pursuing daughter in Sweden. Others complain that the constant access to Facebook is distracting them (Note: them, not the learners!). Each of these examples show new ways of beings and doings that the ICT4RED has created, but which often are not part of the main narrative of ICTs in education.

A lesson prepared at home by the teacher

One might wonder how a teacher’s use of Facebook or Viber is relevant when reviewing a multi-million Rand project such as the ICT4RED.  It is quite simple actually: Teachers value the new opportunities the technology allows them to create for themselves. They might not value the same opportunities the project intended to nurture. For example, a teacher might not be fond of collaborating professionally via email; the very same teacher, however, will tell you with glazing eyes how she is the star at her local church reciting bibles verses from the Bible App she downloaded on her tablet. This teacher has created a new opportunity for herself and making use of that opportunity has increased her well-being. Her status within her church has changed and she has enhanced her means to live the life or be the person she has reason to value. How could a government programme be any more successful than allowing citizens to achieve individually valued beings and doings? Further, while not necessarily using the tablet to enhance her own role as an educator, she has no objections to learners doing so and believes that the tablets are of great benefit to them – an educational impact indeed.   

Technology as an educational input, in particular when combined with Internet connectivity, will not be limited to affect educational processes only. It affects social and economic processes alike, and the holistic long-term impact of ICT4RED might surprise policymakers, researchers, and even participants. Nevertheless, what emerges strongly already is the transformation of education in the Cofimvaba to become an education of choice. Each time an ICT4RED teacher is the center of attention at a regional teachers’ meeting for recording the event with her tablet; each time teachers of more affluent schools in East London ask an ICT4RED teacher to show them how to use tablets as an educational tool; each time policymakers, researchers, and tech geeks make their way amidst flattening tires to the Cofimvaba schools; the daily work and profession of the ICT4RED teachers is recognised. This recognition and respect might just be the motivation teachers have needed to persist with the work they love anyway despite the challenging socio-economic structure. Technology, in the short run, cannot fix any of the underlying structural challenges of rural education in Cofimvaba. It can, and does in the case of ICT4RED, however, serve as a ‘cherry on top’ of a profession already valued, present a means to ‘motivate learners to become me’ and aspire them to pursue a profession increasingly valued, and act as ‘a tool to become a mobile teacher’ to enhance one’s practice of a profession dearly valued.

Teachers having fun exploring the tablets together
It is a long drive back from Mvuzo and despite the South African summer heat the coffee in my thermo mug somehow has become lukewarm. There is no coffee shop anywhere within the next hour. The lesson I observed used a cupcake maker app to explain the idea of food processing to the learners. The learners stirred dough on their tablets, added sugar, and decorated their virtual cupcake creatively. It might be a long shot – but maybe some years from now there might be a coffee shop in Cofimvaba famous for its delicious cupcakes. I, for sure, would be a loyal customer!