IMG_9342Last week’s education news was dominated by the fact that some students in Gauteng have been enrolled in to a pilot scheme to see how tablet computers can helpabout:blank improve public education in South Africa. Local MEC Panyaza Lesufi’s project is ambitious, but it’s by no means the only idea being pioneered. Last week we also heard that school textbooks publisher Via Afrika signed a deal with tablet-based learning company Tabtor with a similar-but-different aim in mind: providing South African learners with extracurricular math lessons straight on to their tablets.

While the Gauteng experiment is primarily about looking into how tablets can be used in class to enhance existing resources – like teachers – what makes Via Afrika and Tabtor different is that learners who make use of the application receive personal tutor instruction and get their homework marked – all through the use of a tablet and the Tabtor app. We caught up with Via Afrika’s group content manager, Michael Goodman, to find out more.

In order for learners to make use of the applications, they need their own tablet – but so long as they have an internet connection they can then get one-on-one coaching with a real-life maths tutor, something few other educational apps offer.

“The implementation of tablet technology in education is widely seen as inevitable and urgent. Education thought leaders recently agreed that learners risk being left behind if they are denied access to technology and the Gauteng Department of Education is currently piloting a brilliant paperless schools initiative using tablets. As a company we are excited by the migration to digital education and ready to play out its success,” says Goodman.

But that is only one part of Via Afrika’s plan to dominate the interactive learning space, as it has a version of the applications that can be used in schools where each learner doesn’t need its own tablet – just a thirst for knowledge.

Where the direct-to-consumer model requires a learner to have the application installed, Tabtor can also be used on shared devices. Goodman and members of Via Afrika travelled to Jamaica to see how it was implemented there.

“A typical Jamaican school looks a lot like an average South African school with large classes and limited resources. We saw a school where 180 learners used Tabtor for 30 minutes per day using only nine tablets. This model using a good rotation timetable is what we’ll replicate in South African schools where tablet acquisition is a barrier to access,” he explained.

The pilot project for the South African launch paired the interactive classes with three Via Afrika Digital Education Centres, where it used a similar rotation programme to accommodate the larger amount of learners.

Learners may be eager to learn, but schools still need to purchase the software and tablets if they want to make use of it. One of Via Afrka’s goals is to find more corporate entities who can bear the brunt of providing the necessary equipment to the schools.

“Often times schools cannot afford to acquire the technology themselves and we would provide a corporate the opportunity to channel their CSI spend in the right direction, like the future of our country. We would take care of all implementation, training, maintenance and management and provide the sponsor with in-depth analysis, feedback and reporting into the project.”

As part of its long-term plan, it wants to help educate teachers so that they can provide the best schooling that they possibly can.

“We see the large scale roll-out to schools across the country as a key objective, and as such we would look to refine our software to empower teachers as far as possible in delivering quality maths education”

Recently there has been talk that South Africa might be getting a new school curriculum, but Goodman doesn’t believe there is a particular problem with it as he is of the opinion that it actually provides a pretty good base.

However, there are aspects of the current schooling system that he would change.

“We have gone through a number of curriculum changes since 1994, and I believe that the current curriculum provides a solid foundation to build on from here. What we need now is stability, more training for teachers in subject knowledge, pedagogical approaches and a national campaign to support the good that is happening.”

But a venture of this size does come with issues. Adapting Tabtor for the South African market has been a process for Via Afrika, but that is not going to stop them from forging ahead and branching out.

“The iterative nature of software development and our close working relationship with the Tabtor brains trust would allow to keep refining and improving the Tabtor platform to the meet the specific need of South African learners. Because Tabtor is such a versatile platform, we could easily and probably will extend our offering to include language instruction.”

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