Cellphones in the classroom – an African perspective

Through the network of teachers in my PLN I have the privilege of meeting some amazing educators from all over South Africa. One such teacher is Robyn Clark of Sekolo sa Borokgo, an independent school in Johannesburg. We met up at a conference in Pretoria last year and met up again at a conference in Durban last month when we both shared as speakers. What I love about Robyn is her willingness to embrace challenge and change as well as her drive to be a teacher who makes a real difference in her pupils’ lives.

Robyn’s innovative and open approach to the use of cellphones in her classroom is evident of her desire to use the tools available to her pupils to teach them more effectively. The recent call to ban cellphones from schools in South Africa (a short-sighted and, quite frankly, ridiculous call) by the National Association of School Governing Bodies elicited a great deal of response in the media. With emotional responses on both sides of the argument, it is good to see a piece of balanced journalism from China Network Television who recently visited Robyn’s school to see how they were using mobile phones as a tool for learning.

Televised insert available here: http://english.cntv.cn/program/africalive/20120518/100250.shtml

I wonder how the National Association of School Governing Bodies would respond to this?

Well done Robyn!  You are an inspiration to your fellow-educators. Thank-you for being a difference-maker!

Transformation before technology!

Changing an outdated industrial-age paradigm of education to a relevant 21st century one will take more than simply adding technology. This piece by Will Richardson sums up my sentiments around this issue so well that I simply had to quote his blog post – I cannot say it better than this!

From the “I Know I Keep Saying This But I Just Can’t Stop Dept.” comes yet another example of how out of whack our language is when talking about what student learning should be. In this long,celebratory piece from the Las Vegas Sun today we learn that students at a Nevada charter school have had their learning “transformed” at the Explore Knowledge Academy, the state’s first iSchool. And the path to transformation? The iPad, of course.

“The world has changed; the expectations in the workforce have changed,” said Abbe Mattson, EKA’s executive director. “You can’t even work at a McDonald’s without using a touch screen. … If we don’t change how we teach, it’s a disservice to our kids.”


In the six months since its technology infusion, EKA has become a model of what the classrooms of the 21st century might look like in Clark County.  Although some students found learning to use the new technology challenging, most took to digital learning immediately, Mattson said.  “It’s like second nature for the students,” she said. “They’re open to trying this and they’re used to this multimedia access.”

Students use the iPads to access educational websites and applications as well as electronic textbooks. They use the iPad to take notes and the tablet’s camera to photograph whiteboards filled with teacher’s lessons and chemistry formulas. Some even record lectures using the iPad’s digital voice recorder or video camera, referring to them when they review for tests.

“I love them,” eighth-grader Alexa Freeman, 13, said of the iPads. “They’re super fast and easy to use.”


And, finally…wait for it…

Educators say the potential payoff of this digital education is enormous, even though it’s still unproven if this nascent technology will increase student achievement. Educational games and visual applications attempt to make learning fun and keep students’ attention, which should translate to better test scores, teachers say.  “If you can get kids engaged, they’ll learn,” Mattson said. “These iPads will help get kids engaged.”

Learning = better test scores. And so it goes…

Look, I know that this here blog has not been all happy, happy lately. I know my cynicism is seeping through more that even I would like. I know I need to get focused on the good, seriously transformative things that some “bold” schools are doing, and I will, I promise. Really.

But I also know that if we keep allowing stories like these to set the bar for change, we’re shortchanging our kids. It’s yet another example of conflating teaching and learning, of not fully understanding the shift to self-directed, personal learning that technology and the Web support. Transformation in this sense means shifting the balance of power to the learner. And I know that starts way before we put a piece of technology in a kid’s hands. But with that power, the technology becomes a much richer, more valuable tool for learning.

I just feel like we have to keep calling this what it is: old wine in new bottles.

Original article



The iPad in South African schools – a response

Much has been made of the use of iPads in the South African school context. I fear though that schools are rushing to this piece of technology without spending time examining how it will improve the level of teaching and learning in the classroom. Others seem to want to get on the iPad bandwagon in their quest to be in front of the race for enrolment while others ask parents to buy iPads and then use them 1 hour a week in an iPad lesson instead of integrating them into the learning process several times during the week.

Let me be upfront and say that the school I lead has embarked on an iPad in the classroom project in one of our grades and we are walking the road slowly with constant evaluation of its effectiveness. We have bought 25 iPads to be shared amongst the classes in the grade and have regular evaluation meetings with the grade teachers to review how the iPad is being used and to share lesson integration ideas. I am a school leader who believes in embracing technology where appropriate but not simply for the sake of being trendy!

Let’s be clear about this: A bad teacher remains a bad teacher when an iPad is put in their hands. Technology is not the key for a bad teacher – accountability and on-going training is the first step!

The Core Group recently uploaded a video entitled “Revolutionising Education: the iPad in South African schools”. This video shows several examples of pupils in varying school contexts across South Africa using iPads in their classrooms. There are some interesting interviews with educators and there is clearly some very good work being done with these devices in some of the schools. However there are some concerns as well.

In the video a teacher is seen to extol the virtues of the iPad in a maths lesson. She tells the viewer that the pupils can now count apples on the iPad and this is helping them understand the concept better. Please explain why this could not have been done without the iPad. Why not have the pupils collect small stones, bottle tops or something similar and bring these into class where the children could explore numeracy concepts in a concrete way? Do we need an iPad to do this? This teachers also mentions that absenteeism is reduced as pupils do not want to miss an iPad class. Imagine if her teaching in all her other classes was so exciting and ignited the imagination in new and dynamic ways, that her pupils did not want to miss her class regardless of what technology, if any, was being used…

I really like the Sacred Heart College approach of engaging their Grade 7 pupils in the creation of their own iPad apps. This seems to be a very forward-thinking and appropriate use of the technology – focus on creating not simply consuming! The learning is in the hands of the learners. I love the little guy who is the sound engineer!

The Key School for Specialised Education is obviously keen on the use of technology in the classroom for all the right reasons but what are they doing using the iPad as what appears to be a TV screen? Come on Core – give them a VGA adapter cable and a monitor on their wall! On the other hand, just use a DVD player if you’re going to be showing the children movies! The story of Reuben told by Dr Jenni Gous is a model story of what can be done with the correct use of the iPad. It is an inspirational story – well done to Reuben’s teacher and mom who have embraced this technology with an open mind.

Here is the video :


This video does not cover the good folks at Kragveld Primary who proudly advertise their school as the only one in the country using iPads from Grade R-7. Clearly they have not seen the video above! Take a look at their video here : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THVvQIgN7g4

While I applaud their first steps towards a new pedagogy in their classrooms, I am not convinced that they ‘get’ it! The iPads are being used as a device to broadcast information in the front of the class instead of being a tool which engages the learners in a creative process. Yes, it certainly puts wonderful graphics on the screen and it certainly has educational value but it is not using the iPad to its potential as a tool for learning. Quite frankly, I am less than impressed by the quality of teaching and learning  put across in this video – a great shame as I believe the teachers at this school have an openness to new ideas and possibilities. I wonder what these folks could do with further training and equipping in the use of the iPad as a teaching tool. This Kragveld video leaves me a bit sad – they seem to be on the right path but stuck in a 20th century paradigm of teaching. Is this revolutionary teaching? I think not…

So then, is the iPad revolutionising education in South Africa? I don’t believe so. Is it being used in exciting and creative ways in certain schools? Absolutely! So now, the question is, how do we bring the schools which are using iPads really well together with those who would like to but simply don’t know how to?

The South African education system is in need of much more basic intervention than simply adding iPads to the mix – a true revolution of the education system will be when every pupil has quality teachers in decent school buildings lead by competent principals supported by effective departments of education. As much as we may like to think so, the iPad is not the answer quite yet!

Another Opportunity To Learn

Earlier this year over 100 teachers attended the very first EdTechConf event in Cape Town. The event was a great success and as a result the EdTechConf organisation has developed a three-way approach to future events :

1) A national EdTechConf conference to be held annually in Cape Town which seeks to attract teachers from all over South Africa

2) Smaller local EdTechConf Extended seminars/conferences to be held throughout South Africa during the year

3) EdTechConf “ThinkShops” which will be focused workshops held on a regular basis at a central venue in Cape Town (to start with!)

EdTechConf Extended @ ElkanahThe very first EdTechConf Extended event is to be held at Elkanah House from 30 September to 1 October. There is a terrific program  planned which will include hands-on workshops, think-tank discussions and informative plenaries. Workshops include topics such  as Paperless Teaching With An iPad, Free Teacher Tools From Microsoft, Online Tools In The Foundation  PhaseGoogle Docs In The Classroom and Using Adobe Photoshop And Indesign.

This promises to be another great event for networking and peer-learning. There are still a few places open so get busy and sign up today!

Please let others know about this event so that the network of like-minded teachers can grow and continue to support one another as they strive to bring new approaches to their teaching. You can point people to this page : http://www.edtechconf.co.za/edtechconfx/edtechconf-extended-elkanah/

The eXtended @ Elkanah House provisional programme can be downloaded here (PDF) : http://www.edtechconf.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Prov_programme_web1.pdf

For further information on EdTechConf or to book a speaker for your school/organisation, please head over to the EdTechConf site – www.edtechconf.co.za , join their Facebook group or follow them on Twitter.

Reflections on the Intel ICT in the Classroom Conference – 5-7 July 2011

I write this blog post 34 000 feet in the air en route to Cape Town having left a very cold Joburg where I attended the Intel ICT in the Classroom Conference. SchoolNet South Africa were the organisers of the event and it was my first encounter with this organisation.

This blog post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the conference but is rather a reflection of the experiences of the last three days. Here are my immediate thoughts :

1. Seeing 500 teachers come together from across the country, reflective of the diversity in our nation, united in their passion for changing the education paradigm so present in many classrooms was wonderful and gave me hope (despite my reflections in point 3 below!).

2. The organisers of the conference did not generate much excitement about the event prior to the first day. There was very little social media action around the conference – this was surprising and perhaps even disappointing.

3. I am amazed at the lack of self-discipline among many South African teachers. People arrived late to almost every plenary and workshop – at times almost an hour late. Many left workshops early because the workshop ran a little late and lunch or tea was waiting – including during a workshop in which international presenters were video-conferencing from the USA! The desire of people to help themselves to copious amounts of tea snacks without care about who was still to come was disappointing. Is it any wonder then that while at the conference I heard about a series of workshops scheduled for teachers in an under-privileged area of Cape Town that had to be cancelled as the teachers were unwilling to attend after 15h00 but were more than happy to leave their teaching to attend during the time pupils were at school? I find this distressing given the disastrous results of the Annual National Assessments – when will teachers take their responsibility seriously? Can we really then expect these same teachers to implement seriously all that they learnt while at the conference? For the sake of our children, I hope so!

4. Obviously I did not attend all the workshops but the ones I did attend were certainly worthwhile. I did not attend any presented by the overseas guest presenters and was delighted to see the incredible knowledge and creativity on display from local teachers. We really do have world-class people right here in South Africa.

5. Proper signage from Day 1 would have been appreciated. Signs indicating from the car park where to register and clear signage of where the various workshop venues were, were sadly lacking. This fact was tweeted by several delegates within the first hour of the conference. I would have hoped that the organisers were monitoring the backchannel and that they would have reacted by simply printing and laminating clear signage by the morning of Day 2. Unfortunately this did not happen. The map in the conference booklet was not very clear and led to further confusion.

6. I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary sessions. Excellent input from Jane Hart, Naomi Harm and John Davitt certainly helped delegates consider their role as educators in the 21st century. I was challenged by these individuals and learnt a great deal from what they shared. It was fantastic that SchoolNet SA could bring in three world-class experts to share with the delegates. I did wonder whether we might see a South African presentation in the plenaries at the next conference.

7. It was wonderful to be able to assist Maggie Verster with the backchannel during the conference. More local teachers joined Twitter at the conference and were able to join the conversation during the event. The wifi provided by Peter Henning of St John’s College was excellent despite taking strain at various points during the conference. The tweet summaries may be found here : Day 1; Day 2; Day 3

8. Day 1 concluded with the awarding of the Microsoft Innovative Teacher Awards. All 22 finalists were presented to the delegates with a description of what they had done in their schools. What struck me the most was that many of the finalists’ projects were really simple in concept and had been implemented with excellence. It was clear that there will be many teachers in schools all over South Africa who could qualify as prize-winners if they entered this competition. Congratulations to all the winners – you are the change-agents South African education needs in classrooms! One observation, also noted by someone who tweeted into the conference, was that the prize winners were not representative of the South African demographic. When I asked about this I was told that the quality of entries from previously-disadvantaged teachers and schools was not of a good enough quality and that not many from these schools had entered. If this is true, the work of organisations such as SchoolNetSA and EdTechConf has only just begun!

9. I was privileged to meet some truly wonderful people at the conference. The networking aspect of events such as this are what make them such powerful agents of change. The challenge is to engage with new contacts after the event. I was able to follow new folks on Twitter and I had several folks follow me. We need to engage with each other in constructive ways now that the connection has been made. I left the conference unclear as to how SchoolNetSA would facilitate ongoing discussion between those who were at the conference. We encouraged delegates on Twitter to continue using the conference hashtag (#schoolnetsa11) as a means of growing their online learning experience but I am not sure how many will do so.

10. The conference dinner was superb. Delegates appreciated the brief address by Parthan Chetty of Intel, sponsor of the dinner. The Birchwood Hotel and Conference Centre provided a fantastic meal and venue while the vocals belted out by three talented singers set the scene for a night of dancing, singing and opportunity simply to have a good time!


All in all, the conference was a positive experience and exposed me to some incredible teachers from around South Africa doing wonderful things with ICT in their classrooms. I also left feeling motivated to continue the path of developing our ICT strategy at school. The conference was certainly not the best I have been to and there were aspects which I would want to see changed. However, it was time and money well spent and I am glad I attended. I certainly hope to attend next year’s event and continue my journey into learning more about ICT in the classroom – perhaps I’ll even submit a proposal for a workshop!

I look forward to building on the knowledge gained this past week and to being part of this evolving community of education game-changers in South Africa. My thanks to the organisers of the conference for enabling this conversation and learning to take place.

The Literacy Imperative

I am unashamedly an eager proponent of the use of technology in education. I passionately enthuse about the role of social media and am constantly amazed at the arsenal of technical gadgetry teachers now have at their disposal.

Today I saw firsthand how critical it has become for us not simply to bring these web tools and gadgets into our classrooms but also to teach digital literacy to our pupils. As I waited to be served at our local copyshop, a lady walked in and began a conversation which went something along these lines :

Assistant : May I help you?

Lady : Yes, I want to look at the computer.

Assistant : What would you like to do?

Lady : I want to use the computer.

Assistant : Would you like to print something?

Lady : No, I want to find something.

Assistant : What would you like to find?

Lady : I want to find a job.

Assistant : So you want to use the internet.

Lady : Yes.

At this point the shop assistant walked the lady over to one of the computers and explained how the payment for internet services would work. She then left the lady and came back to serve customers. I watched with interest as the lady opened Internet Explorer and discovered that Google was the homepage. She typed in “Worcester jobs” and waited. After a minute she realised that nothing was happening and looked around helplessly. Fortunately for her at that moment a friend of hers entered the shop. The friend showed the lady that she had to use the mouse to push the “Google Search” button. As the search results came up showing over 3 million results she sat staring at the screen clearly overwhelmed. Her friend suggested clicking on one of the search results and they both then sat looking at the resulting site. They then returned to the search results and the process repeated. This went on for about 10 minutes. It appeared to be a complete waste of time as at no point was anything transcribed from the sites or email enquiries sent. After the final site visit the lady visited the counter, paid her money and left.

It was painfully obvious that this woman had little or no knowledge of how to use a search engine properly or even how to navigate around an internet browser. I could not help but wonder what kind of job she was looking for. There cannot be many jobs in the marketplace today that don’t require some sort of basic digital literacy and so I fear that her chances of landing a job are drastically reduced if what I saw reflected her ability on a computer.

Although I am tired of the clichéd “preparing our pupils for the 21st century” (we’re 10 years into the 21st century – its arrived!), it does ring true that if we are serious about sending our pupils into the world with the knowledge, skills and values required for success, we have no choice but to be taking the teaching of digital literacy very seriously indeed.

As much as it is nice to speak of what teachers can do with Web 2.0 tools and interactive software and so on, the first priority in the classroom must be to teach our children to use a computer. In a middle to upper income stream school, we can safely assume that most of our children will know that basics of keyboard  and mouse use, and have some experience in basic word processing skills. They will most likely also have explored the internet at some point and will have used various interactive tools such as video games in their lifetime. There are however many communities in our country where this is not the case. Communities where computer use is considered a luxury and where the priority is survival not bandwidth.

The digital divide is very real. How we solve it is a complicated and lengthy process which must involve government departments, NGOs, corporates and so on. In the meantime, schools have to be teaching the basics. I salute the Khanya Project for their efforts in this (see this post as well).

I still cringe at the thought that there are 4,7 million illiterate adults in our country and a further 4,9 million adults who are functionally illiterate (figures from Project Literacy). If this figure is to improve we have to continue improving the literacy programs in our schools and at the same time bring digital literacy into our curricula and classroom practice. This has to be a priority for all those involved in education and for any who care about the future of our wonderful land.

Magic Tech Or An Expensive Paperweight?

I love this poster!


This photo and many like it can be found in the Great Quotes About Learning And Change group on Flickr.

Bridging The Digital Divide – Is It Working?

I came across a news Khanya Project logoarticle published by the Western Cape Education Department which speaks of their success in rolling out computers to all state schools in the Western Cape through the ambitious Khanya Project. When one considers the vast differences in socio-economic status which bedevil the education system in South Africa, this is indeed a remarkable achievement. However the article states that the installation of these computers will bridge the digital divide and it is with this sentiment that I would argue.

I do not believe that bridging the digital divide is simply putting in banks of computers in schools. The teachers in these schools need to be taught how to use these computers to go beyong the Google research-type project.

Are the pupils learning to utilise social networks in responsible and safe ways? The recent OuToilet saga would seem to indicate that many of our pupils do not have the maturity or online safety awareness to cope with the reality of a networked world where privacy is becoming a very real issue.

Are our schools allowing their students to use their cellphones as part of the learning process? See this for more on cellphones in the classroom – Mobile Phones In The Classroom

Do our curricula incorporate the teaching of IT skills beyond the basic usage of word processing? Are we teaching digital citizenship as a core subject to prepare our pupils for a world in which these skills are no longer an optional extra?

Do our teachers feel competent enough to teach these skills to their pupils or do they feel that they are in fact the ones who need to be taught?

There is so much that can be done at a very basic level with technology in the classroom. The Khanya Project’s investment into WCED schools should mean that the Western Cape should be leading the way in technology integration – but is it? Significant headway has been made and the folks at Khanya should be congratulated on what they have managed to accomplish.

However I would argue that all the investment in hardware and software will eventually come to naught if our teachers are not equipped properly and our principals do not have the vision or knowledge to make it a priority in their schools.

Edu-Tweeting : Twitter – An Introduction For Teachers

Edu-Tweeting : A Twitter Handbook for Teachers

Mobile Phones In The Classroom – A Challenge

A recent USA survey has shown that the use of cellphones in the classroom is at a tipping point – click here to read about it.

According to the Developing Telecoms website 90% of all telephone lines in Africa are mobile and market penetration is expected to reach more than 50% this year – representing a total of more than 500 million people in Africa owning a cellphone, several countries have broken the 100% market penetration threshold and some countries’ cellphone markets are growing at more than 100% per annum.

A 2008 research project which tracked cellphone usage among school children in South Africa, specifically in a township school, showed that when pupils used a cellphone for learning purposes they achieved better results than those who did not. When one considers the incredible market penetration of MXit, the popular mobile messaging  service with 27-million subscribers, and the pervasiveness of mobile phones in the youth market, it is surprising that most schools still maintain draconian no-phone policies. Pupils are told that mobile phones are not welcome in the classroom or on the school premises at all. They are told that the one device with which they communicate and share information is not welcome in the place in which they spend 8 hours a day learning to communicate and share information!

It seems to me that a more open approach is required. I recently heard cellphones referred to as “mobile learning devices”. I like this as it sets the tone right from the outset. It says to the student that if you want to use your cellphone for learning it is welcome but if you intend to use it in inappropriate ways and in a manner which will distract you from learning then you had best keep it at home. If our teachers are willing to use mobile phones in their teaching and pupils know what is expected from them, I believe the temptation to abuse this everyday piece of technology at school will be greatly reduced.

Imagine if your pupils could use cellphones in the classroom to record science experiments on video or through a series of still photographs and then upload these to an online sharing site complete with all the necessary notes, observations and conclusions. Imagine allowing your pupils to take their mobile phones on a field trip to interview experts, celebrities, museum staff, curators of national monuments and so on and then using that audio record to produce a piece of primary research or use as part of a report-back session. Imagine your pupils using Twitter from the mobile phones with a class specific hashtag to produce an ongoing backchannel to your lessons. Imagine your class using their mobile phones to record the planting of seeds and tracking their growth for tabulation in a Natural Science module.

The possibilities are endless if only we are brave enough to venture into waters many of our colleagues find frightening.  Are you brave enough? Will you take that first step into a brave new world where your students can use the technology with which they are most familiar to learn about that which they are not?

Innovative usage of mobile learning in schools is starting to take hold, with
forward-thinking educators understanding that today’s students don’t just want mobile learning — they actually need it.

– http://www.scholastic.com/mobilelearning