South African schools and universities are struggling with the high costs of textbooks and other educational materials, a shortage of teachers in key subjects like maths and science, and difficulties in funding IT infrastructure. However, technology continues to offer some compelling answers to these challenges. By Ernst Wittmann
A combination of falling data connectivity prices, more widespread fibre and 3G/4G/LTE networks, and affordable, reliable tablet computers means that schools and tertiary institutions can start tapping into the cloud for learning materials. Here are a few reasons education is likely to head for the cloud in the years to come.
- No more IT support headaches
One of the biggest reasons technology has stumbled in South African schools is a lack of IT skills at schools to install software, manage servers and maintain networks. But with the cloud, students will just need a device with a modern web browser and a decent Internet connection to access the latest learning materials from the cloud.
- A world of resources available online
Textbooks are expensive and so are many traditional software packages aimed at schools, teachers and students. The cloud changes the economics by offering resources for a low monthly subscription fee or even for free.
This includes school management and administration systems, tools for teachers, productivity software (like Dropbox and Gmail) and learning software (like interactive maths or language software for schoolchildren).
From maths to physics, English to biology, schoolchildren have a wide range of content at their fingertips through mobile apps or online services.
- Less upfront IT investment
Teachers and principals know that schoolchildren will need to be computer-literate to succeed in the information economy. But the costs of installing a computer lab with a network and server infrastructure are prohibitive; what’s more, expensive IT infrastructure is a target for thieves.
With the cloud, the school simply needs to be in an area with good mobile broadband coverage or to install fibre and Wi-Fi access points.
Students can access cloud applications from a tablet computer that could cost just a couple of thousand rands, greatly reducing the upfront cost of creating a high-tech learning environment.
- Schoolwork on demand
One of the biggest benefits of the cloud is that it enables the world to become the classroom. Students and learners can access content wherever they are, including textbooks, coursework, tests, videos and other materials their teachers put online. Whether they are sick at home or at school, schoolchildren are still able to access the learning resources they need.
The cloud can also encourage independent learning, allowing students to learn at their own pace. Advanced students can challenge themselves with more difficult work; meanwhile, a child that is struggling with a maths problem can revise and revisit the materials in his or her own time.
- Better classroom collaboration
Of course, technology isn’t just about working independently. It can also facilitate collaboration, even helping schoolchildren and students prepare for how people work together in today’s business world. For example, learners can work together on essays in Google Apps or reach out to friends on Slack for help with an algebra problem. They can even collaborate with children and teachers on the other side of the world.
Taking the cloud to the classroom
Tablets, as flexible and functional media consumption and creation devices, are arguably the most natural way to give learners access to the cloud’s learning resources. They’re cost-effective (especially entry-level Android-based models), offer decent battery life, and are easy to support from an IT perspective.
In addition, tablets are lighter and more portable than notebooks, yet offer larger screens than smartphones. Another benefit is that tablets offer schoolchildren a range of learning tools in one place. They can record the classroom session for later review, use calculators and other tools, and do so much more on one interface.
- Ernst Wittmann is a regional manager for Southern Africa at ALCATEL