I was quite excited to see the launch of President Zuma’s Operation Phakisa in Education in South Africa recently. With experts from the national and provincial levels rolling out this ICT based solution which aims to provide schools with connectivity and smart devices, Zuma himself says the initiative will enable learners to “be able to access educational resources to successfully meet the requirements of the curriculum” and allow teacher’s access to “the resources necessary to create effective learning opportunities for all learners". The benefits touted don’t stop there – there will be online resources for teachers to engage in to grow their skills and online communities for them to collaborate and even specialised resources for those learners with special needs. Some of the already witnessed successes from the pioneering province of Gauteng have been learners who dropped out returning to school and teachers and learners coming to school much earlier and staying later. Sounds promising! But then I cast my mind back to a research trip I was lucky enough to embark on in South Africa in the early stages of my work on mobile learning. I’m certainly no expert on the education system there, but something that always stuck with me was the shock of finding out that South African had one of the highest levels of investment in education globally. I did a quick search to find some current data and voila! At about 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 20% of total state expenditure, the fact not only remains true today but also means that the government spends more on education than on any other sector.
But that wasn’t the most interesting part of my online trawl. The next article I uncovered was a press release ‘coincidentally’ announced within days of President Zuma’s Operation Phakisa in Education being launched. This one was titled “SA 'fails' in maths, science rankings”. Oh. Again, I’m no expert, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise diversion tactics as blatant as those. As it turns out, South Africa, with all its investment is still suffering a failing education system. The report goes on to detail how the country ranked last among 140 economies on the WEF Global Competitiveness Index for 2015-2016 in terms of maths and science at higher education and training level and 138 out of 140 overall. Additionally, a BCG report confirmed that South Africa spends more than most of their peers with worse outcomes.
The reasons for South Africa’s failing education system seem to be infinite and with every new source of information uncovered on the topic, there different target for the finger pointing of blame. The teachers, skewed benchmarking, inequality, a disconnect between skills taught and market demands, and the government’s inability to provide adequate resources for all. All this is probably not news to most and certainly the tip of the iceberg. With so many deep-rooted challenges, can President Zuma’s ICT in Education initiative really been held with any real regard or promise of delivery, or is it just another smokescreen designed to mask the deeper issues? And from the perspective of someone working within ICT4D and specifically ICT for Education, my concerns are not just on the fact that this initiative could be set up for failure, but also the impact that failed large-scale government initiatives has on the overall ICT4D industry. With ICT4D success stories still few and far between, the industry needs more well-thought out and designed projects, not overblown promises. Let’s check back here is twelve months my dear readers. I hope both of you can prove me wrong.