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ICTs in early-grade mathematics education in South Africa



Why … review ICT programmes in early-grade mathematics education?

Mathematics is powerful. A strong mathematical understanding can unlock opportunities, but South African learners gravely underperform in this subject. ICT applications hold enormous potential to teach the assortment of notations, formulae, figures, symbols and graphs in meaningful and dramatic ways.

What … are ICTs and their potential?

Play helps children connect with the world in tangible ways and ICTs provide online game platforms where children unconsciously learn mathematics. Drill and practice software help develop competence and manipulatives allow children to construct cognitive models for abstract mathematical ideas and processes. ICTs expose educators and learners to different learning skills, allowing for creativity, reasoning and problem-solving. ICTs have the potential to mediate the learning of smart skills like collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking, crucial for the prosperity of any country. Government’s policy response speaks to this potential, but most schools are still in the process of learning to integrate ICTs. Researchers also warn that ICTs are a supplement and not a substitute for education, educators and textbooks.

Where … are we now in South Africa?

It is within this context that the Zenex Foundation commissioned a national review of ten Grade R to 4 programmes that operated in the public education system between 2016 and 2021 to inform future strategy, design and implementation of programmes. All the programmes were developed from research and evidence on how young children learn best and most (80%) align exactly with CAPS. The majority (60%) target the transition point between Grade 3 and 4. Most programmes (80%) are implemented by NGOs or implementing organisations. The majority (70%) are designed for in-class teaching and learning, while 30% are used for both in-class and extracurricular activities. Programmes target different groups of beneficiaries: learners (40%); educators and learners (30%); DBE officials, educators and learners (10%); and school management support, educators and learners (10%). Half of the programmes are accessible both offline and online with 30% only accessible online. Of the online programmes, 60% are zero-rated. Half the programmes use original content, 30% utilise third-party content, while 20% employ modified or adapted open education resources. Half the programmes require ongoing technical support.

Challenges that hinder the implementation of ICT programmes are poor service delivery, poverty, crime, weather events, protest action, inadequate connectivity, overcrowded schools, inadequate infrastructure and equipment, theft and abuse of infrastructure and equipment, limited educator digital literacy, a shortage of skilled and motivated external coaches, and high staff costs.

How … do we shift the needle in future?

Common challenges and lessons provide strategies and recommendations for the development, implementation and support of programmes in the future:

  • Design: develop appropriate curricula for young learners, align programmes to CAPS, offer programmes in all South African languages, and analyse data in real time to plug gaps and differentiate learning.
  • Implementation: train teachers, work with secure schools, establish and nurture relationships to promote onboarding and buy-in, provide ongoing support, and employ external change agents/coaches.
  • Sustainability and scaling-up: roll out infrastructure to all schools, NGOs and implementers work as a collective to fundraise, simplify zero-rating, nurture relationships between users and developers, and cultivate partnerships with the Department of Basic Education to reach economies of scale.

A final theme that emerges is that the ICT adoption journey takes time, patience and customised support. Understanding differentiated personalities, challenges and views in schools that often have multigrade and large classes allows for building a learning community and underpins ownership, teamwork and innovation.

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