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What will it take to empower South Africa's future ICT leaders?

What will it take to empower South Africa's future ICT leaders?

Statistics revealed during the announcement of the South African 2014 matriculation results in January 2015 paint a somewhat concerning picture for those seeking further education to boost their chances in the job market – particularly if they are pursuing a career in ICT.

Education experts and ICT sector professionals agree that eLearning has a role to play to not only reinforce education throughout a learner's academic programme, from school right through to post-matric and at tertiary level, but help job seekers acquire much-needed skill sets.

In January 2015 South Africa's basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced the matric 2014 national pass rate decreased by 2.4 percentage points to 75.8%, down from 2013's 78.2%.

More than 600 000 South African learners are believed to have written the matriculation final examinations in 2014. According to statistics sourced from academics, one-in-four failed and 151 000 or 28% qualified for Bachelor's studies, while 167 000 or 31% qualified for Diploma study.

A News24 report focused on a statement from AfriForum which claimed that the matric pass rate is less than 45%, if the number of pupils who enrolled in Grade 1 in 2013 and the number who actually wrote matric in 2014 is taken into consideration.

Independent Online (IOL) reported recently that universities in South Africa's Kwa-Zulu Natal province are full and "school-leavers have only a one-in-eight chance of winning a place to study." This has sparked some debate online about what will become of those who have not passed or those who have not earned sufficient marks to qualify for university entry.

South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande has stated that there are extensive Post School Education and Training (PSET) system opportunities for school leavers.

In a media statement posted on the government's website on 12 January, the Minister reiterated the opportunities that lie in technical and vocational education and training colleges, as well as sector education and training authorities (SETAs). These institutions are linked to occupational programmes and work places he said.

The opportunity for learners to secure a place within a tertiary institution to further their education is one discussion point – another is the low pass rates for mathematics and physical science, and what this could mean for key sectors including ICT.

Impact on industry

An ITWeb report quoted basic education acting director-general Paddy Padayachee as stating that these rates have decreased in 2014.

The article further stated that the number of learners who passed mathematics (attaining 30% or more) dropped to 53.5% from 59.1% in 2013, while the pass rate for physical science dropped to 61.5% from 67.4% in 2013.

The City Press quoted Umalusi, a monitoring body, also stating that the 2014 matric results for maths, maths literacy and physical science were worse than the 2013 figures.

The scenario certainly has ICT industry representatives worried. "The low pass rates in science and maths will definitely impact, not only the ICT sector, but in most other sectors, due to fewer skilled employees. Introducing ICT in schools (from Grade 1 to Grade 12) will certainly improve the quality of education," says Kobus van Wyk, head, eLearning at Mustek.

"Is enough being done? Definitely not. And it is all very well for the ICT sector to 'be concerned' about the situation, but what are the different ICT companies doing to assist the national and provincial education departments?" he continues.

Alfie Hamid, regional manager for Cisco Corporate Affairs in Sub-Saharan Africa, is less concerned about the maths and science figures, but more over the lack of foundation ICT learning to teach the fundamentals of ICT – this, he claims, is critical to improve the "ICT readiness" of school leavers approaching institutions.

Hamid adds that less than 5% of schools nationally offer ICT as a subject and one of the main challenges is the availability of qualified teachers to fulfil learning requirements.

He asserts that this scenario has to be addressed if the country is to develop highly qualified ICT professionals. This is exacerbated by the fact that qualified teachers are attracted to the private sector where there is a better chance of higher remuneration.

"Without that basic IT knowledge, a learner would be lost in their first year of studies. ICT as a subject must get more attention and focus... and this is where the ICT private sector has to come in."

The role of technology

Experts agree that technology-intensive methodologies such as eLearning, under the right conditions, can present a viable and cost efficient method of tuition – one that is designed to overcome logistic and other hurdles that often block widespread access to education.

Van Wyk defines eLearning as the use of technology tools to enhance teaching and learning. This incorporates devices used by teaching staff (projectors, interactive whiteboards) as well as e-content (including e-textbooks) and devices used by learners including computers, laptops and tablets.

Opinions vary as to how established this method is in South Africa and the rest of the continent. Van Wyk says eLearning is "not established in South Africa as a part of education at all."

He says pockets of eLearning is happening in some schools, but this is the exception. "Before eLearning can take place in a school, two things need to be present: the technology itself and skilled teachers that can harness the power of technology to improve educational outcomes. In most of the schools in South Africa these two vital elements are missing."

Mike Thoms, head of institution at Boston City Campus & Business College, said eLearning is used in both distance and contact (face-to-face) learning situations in which the various and many benefits of digital technologies are drawn into the teaching and learning strategy in various ways.

"eLearning can be used as the principle mechanism or strategy to present all or the bulk of the learning; or, it can be used to supplement or augment other strategies, like face-to-face learning or to consolidate lower-order, procedural knowledge that needs to be readily available to students anytime, anywhere. One of the key determinants is whether the eLearning will take place synchronously (in real time or at the time of the learning intervention, e.g. a live Webinar) or whether the eLearning will take place asynchronously (anytime, anywhere bit NOT in real time – e.g. participating in a simulation exercise or watching a pre-recorded lecture). In the first instance there will be a reliance on hardware (devices), software and connectivity while in the second instance there may not be a requirement for connectivity unless the asynchronous learning inputs are deployed from centralised servers requiring log-ins and/or downloads."

Thoms says South Africa compares favourably to other parts of Africa in terms of the skills, hardware and software requirements, but has greater challenges than its counterparts in relation to data access and connectivity (where these factors are fundamentally implicated in the eLearning context.)

Van Wyk also points out that the main purpose of eLearning is not to build technical skills, but rather to serve as a tool to complement traditional teaching methods. "However, exposure to technology and the constant use of technology tools while engaging in eLearning to learn science, maths and so on will assist learners with the acquisition of technology skills. If technology is brought into schools and learners are taught to use it effectively from an early age, we will begin fostering a technology savvy population."

More effective learning

While the ability to access information instantaneously, to interact with education professionals immediately and solicit expertise at the touch of button is appealing, the reality is that there are prerequisites and conditions to extracting maximum value.

Much depends on available infrastructure, the volume of available course material is not as extensive online as would be the case within a traditional academic environment and there is a cost involved with eLearning – depending on the level of academic support required.

"Many learning environments are deploying eLearning interventions to augment traditional classroom practices in order to construct more effective learning experiences that model the technology-rich demands of an increasingly globalised, super-complex world - but these are not always targeted specifically at improving pass rates," Thoms continues.

He believes it is likely that demands for greater capacity in the secondary school system in South Africa, (particularly for students that have dropped out before reaching Grade 12 or that have failed Grade 12 and cannot be accommodated in the secondary school system ...) will see many of these students turning to eLearning options, whether these are a Grade 12 equivalency or an occupational programme focused on acquiring skills-for-jobs.

"The capacity issue in the tertiary education system and the pressures to massify participation in higher education will generate the same need and demand for anytime-anywhere options that can only be provided by eLearning modes of instruction," he adds.

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