How data is em­pow­er­ing an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in cri­sis

An in­no­va­tive mo­bile learn­ing plat­form is dis­tribut­ing con­tent via a data-driven model.

Finweek English Edition - - THE WEEK - By Jessica Hub­bard ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

with con­sis­tently poor ma­tric re­sults and on­go­ing con­flict at uni­ver­si­ties around the coun­try, South African ed­u­ca­tion is clearly in cri­sis. Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than in math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence re­sults, with South African learn­ers con­sis­tently rank­ing among the worst in the world.

The 2015/16 World Eco­nomic Fo­rum (WEF) Global Com­pet­i­tive­ness re­port placed South Africa al­most dead last among 140 coun­tries in terms of its maths and sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion – with only Egypt and Paraguay trail­ing be­hind it. Sim­i­larly, the 2016 In­ter­na­tional Maths and Sci­ence Study (TIMSS), which tests 10-year-olds and 14-year-olds in the two sub­jects ev­ery four years, placed SA near the bot­tom of a list of 57 coun­tries.

Although ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and pol­i­cy­mak­ers alike have scram­bled to find so­lu­tions, there has been lit­tle in the way of tan­gi­ble im­prove­ments.

But a new gen­er­a­tion of tech-savvy en­trepreneurs is turn­ing its col­lec­tive at­ten­tion to­wards solv­ing some of the coun­try’s most press­ing so­cial chal­lenges, with ed­u­ca­tion be­ing an ob­vi­ous place to be­gin.

One such young en­tre­pre­neur is Zakheni Ngubo, se­nior man­ag­ing part­ner at dig­i­tal learn­ing plat­form Sya­funda. A Man­dela Washington Fel­low and a Bran­son Cen­tre of En­trepreneur­ship alum­nus, Ngubo es­tab­lished Sya­funda to ad­dress the con­sis­tently poor per­for­mances in maths and sci­ence in South African schools.

Far from just another on­line plat­form or slick app, Sya­funda takes its cue from widely sourced data to pro­vide ac­cess to dig­i­tal con­tent through mo­bile tech­nol­ogy.

“Through dig­i­tal tests we iden­tify, cap­ture and mon­i­tor per­for­mance data and pro­file each stu­dent for sup­port, ca­reer guid­ance, and univer­sity bur­sary place­ment while giv­ing our clients and schools real-time feed­back and in­ter­ven­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” ex­plains Ngubo.

With a fierce com­mit­ment to both col­lect­ing and har­ness­ing data and an­a­lyt­ics from learn­ers and schools, the Sya­funda model has quickly gained trac­tion.

Sya­funda is cur­rently dis­tribut­ing dig­i­tal con­tent to over 80 000 stu­dents in 47 schools as part of a spon­sored pro­ject in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion, Di­men­sion Data and Vir­gin Unite.

To en­sure that progress is be­ing made, and that the ap­proach ac­tu­ally ad­dresses the chal­lenges ex­pe­ri­enced by both teach­ers and learn­ers, the data el­e­ment is all-im­por­tant.

“One ma­jor prob­lem we have iden­ti­fied is the lack of ac­count­abil­ity, and di­ag­nos­tic and per­for­mance data with re­gards to high schools – par­tic­u­larly in the lower grades like 8 to 10, where there are no com­mon tests,” says Ngubo.

“By set­ting weekly or monthly sched­uled tests in line with Se­nior man­ag­ing part­ner at Sya­funda the pre­scribed cur­ricu­lum, we can iden­tify and flag prob­lem ar­eas and strug­gling schools early on for in­ter­ven­tion and re­search pur­poses.” In line with this strat­egy, Sya­funda also gives reg­is­tered teach­ers ac­cess to real-time data and an­a­lyt­ics in order to keep track of their stu­dents’ ac­tiv­ity and per­for­mance. This in­cludes the abil­ity to up­load mul­ti­ple-choice assessments to be com­pleted elec­tron­i­cally to as­sist with mark­ing and com­pil­ing re­ports.

Ac­cess is key

Ac­cord­ing to Ngubo, mo­bile learn­ing is still in its in­fancy in SA, but its po­ten­tial to trans­form ed­u­ca­tion at large is stag­ger­ing. He notes that there are ap­prox­i­mately 3.5m high­school learn­ers be­tween the ages of 15 and 19, and of th­ese learn­ers around 76% own or have ac­cess to a mo­bile de­vice. The key chal­lenge, how­ever, is that ac­cess to hard­ware alone with­out rel­e­vant con­tent and soft­ware does not aid in the ed­u­ca­tion process. Ngubo points out that today, the ma­jor­ity of dig­i­tal con­tent in ed­u­ca­tion is ei­ther too tech­ni­cal and there­fore in­tim­i­dat­ing, or not ap­pli­ca­ble to the South African con­text. Added to this, the high cost of data pro­hibits learn­ers from ac­cess­ing most dig­i­tal con­tent on­line. To get around the con­nec­tiv­ity is­sue, Sya­funda of­fers off­line wire­less func­tion­al­ity by plac­ing its servers in schools, libraries and com­mu­nity cen­tres. “What we de­vel­oped was a so­lu­tion of on­line reg­is­tra­tion and an­a­lyt­ics but off­line con­tent in a dig­i­tal li­brary,” ex­plains Ngubo. “We have dig­i­tal libraries set up in schools and public libraries all pre­loaded with about five ter­abytes’ worth of video tu­to­ri­als, e-books, work­sheets and soft­ware.” This en­ables any stu­dent with a dig­i­tal de­vice to ac­cess the high-speed, free WiFi and to down­load or stream any pre­loaded ma­te­rial they need with­out in­ter­net ac­cess. Sibu­siso Maseko, a prin­ci­pal at Zwelibanzi High School out­side Dur­ban that has part­nered with Sya­funda for two years, says that the learn­ing plat­form is hav­ing a very pos­i­tive im­pact – par­tic­u­larly within sci­ence. Maseko notes that the ma­tric pass rate for sci­ence has in­creased by 10% since the learn­ers have start­ing us­ing Sya­funda. “Sya­funda pro­vides learn­ing ma­te­rial to stu­dents in their mother tongue [isiZulu], which re­ally helps them to un­der­stand the ac­tual con­tent,” he ex­plains. “When they en­gage with this ma­te­rial out­side of class, we see that they be­gin to take their for­mal, in-class learn­ing more se­ri­ously.” Maseko says that he hopes Sya­funda will ex­pand its con­tent and pro­grammes to other sub­jects in the near fu­ture, not just maths and sci­ence. Sya­funda aims to ex­pand its reach to 500 schools, 200 public libraries and 100 com­mu­nity cen­tres by 2019.

Zakheni Ngubo

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