Incomes based education and digital literacies

Did you benefit from unequal education? If you’re a South African and you can access this website, there’s a good chance you did – either because of apartheid education, or because of the ‘incomes-based education’ which followed it. All the more reason to use your digital skills to sign a memorandum to the Minister of Basic Education from  NGO Equal Education. You can add your name to the memorandum by emailing and make sure you join the March on 17 June.

The Equal Education campaign has rightly focused on bringing our attention to the inadequate educational infrastructure in many schools, where teachers and young people must cope without electricity, or water, and unhygienic forms of sanitation.

A few months ago, a group of colleagues and myself also sent a submission to the Department of Basic Education to put our support behind the campaign and draw attention to what seems to be some back-pedalling around minimum norms and standards for Internet access and electricity in schools. A couple of years ago the department seemed set on a course to make electricity and internet part of a school’s basic infrastructure, and set ambitious goals regarding the development of digital literacy. Now the draft norms and standards only refer in general terms to ‘energy’ and any form of connectivity.


Equal Education cite some recent data from the South African National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) Reports in  May 2011. The figures in the graph above show how schools in the Eastern Cape and KZN provinces struggle most with lack of access to grid electricity. In total, 14% of schools have no electricity while 7% use solar, generator or other less reliable sources.  This is a (small) improvement on 2006, when 17 percent of SA schools had no electricity.


Other data from the NEIMS reports form a good background to my research which explores the consequences of the fact that many young people, even in urban areas, don’t have much access to computers or the web either at home or at school. In 2006, 68 percent of SA schools had no computers, and figures from the government’s e-education report in 2004 show that only about half the schools which had computers then actually used them for ‘teaching and learning’ (rather than purely for administration). There is a bit more detail about learner access in the 2011 data,  which shows that only 10% of South African state schools have stocked computer centres. Only 33% of schools of schools even have a space for a computer centre. More than half, or 57% of the  schools which have an allocated space for computers do not use it for a computer centre.  These 2011 figures show that teachers and young people in the richer provinces Gauteng and the Western Cape are indeed at a great advantage in relation to their access to computers, these provinces provide 43% and 34% of schools respectively with computers in stocked computer centres.

[Edit – There are some discrepancies between the above computer access figures and those cited by the Western Cape government, which claimed 100% access to computer labs  when announcing its plans to provide each child with a tablet over the next five years.  I’m  not totally sure how to explain these discrepancies. They may relate to the fact that this province installed labs in all 1464 schools under the Khanya project, but the labs were not all well managed or maintained. ]

The report does show that the Western Cape is the only province which has made much progress in making Internet access available more broadly.  It has connected 86% of schools, and 97% of schools in this province have a landline telephone. Outside Gauteng and  the Western Cape, South African schools rely on mobile connectivity, with 92% of schools using cellphone networks while only 46% have a landline.


From the 2011 census, we know that  64.8% of households in South Africa don’t have Internet access. Almost half of the 33.2% of households who do have some Internet access, get online via the most expensive (per bit) route – via mobile phone (16.3% ). Research with colleague Jonathan Donner showed how in Cape Town young people are learning to use computers at school and that there is huge demand for public access facilities such as cybercafes and public libraries for safe quiet spaces after school and for free or more affordable internet.

These figures suggest a definite failure to attain the policy goal of digital literacy set out in the 2004 e-Education white paper, which stated that, by 2013, all young people in South African schools would be “ICT Capable”:

Every South African learner in the general and further education and training bands will be ICT capable (that is, use ICTs confidently and creatively to help develop the skills and knowledge they need to achieve personal goals and to be full participants in the global community) by 2013.

Schools and libraries need to think urgently about how to address this state of inequality. On the one hand children have a right to equal facilities.On the other hand, educational resources are limited and strategies need to focus on providing them with appropriate and available technologies, devices, training, media and skills, without deepening existing inequalities.

A 2007 study of 290 grade 7 learners from four different schools in the Cape which all had computer labs found significant differences between the level of skills students developed at various schools, depending on how much access students actually had to computers, their prior knowledge of ICTs, technical support provided to teachers, and home use of computers (Gudmundsdottir, 2010). Guaranteeing access at school can indeed even the playing field in some respects, but it also introduces new inequalities. To get a clear sense of how teachers need a great deal more than just basic infrastructure from the Department of Basic Education, see this interview by Kobus van Wyk with HoD Penny Vinjevold ,conducted at the time the Western Cape’s Khanya project was concluded. Kobus’s blog post became a space for teachers to express how they felt when suddenly faced with the prospect of reduced technical support as they struggled to make eLearning part of their daily practice. Make sure you read the comments!

It is also definitely worth reconsidering the role of cellphones in schools. Unlike computers, cellphones are available in almost all schools, and in many homes as well, which brings huge advantages. Phone charging stations may play an important role for children whose families only have intermittent access to electricity. Landline Internet access combined with wifi or other free or cheap networking technologies such as Bluetooth or MXit and mobile devices can allow schools to make educational media on the web more accessible, particularly media especially designed for phones. More importantly, strategies and curricula should utilise the available mobile devices and free or cheap networking which teachers and young people already use and understand.

While it may be sensible to ban cellphones from some types of school classes and from some areas of the library, many such bans prohibit learning as well. Blanket bans mean that neither teachers nor young people are able to use the educational capacities of their phones  or to develop the  digital literacies that emerge this way.

[Edit: Thanks to Kobus van Wyk and Mark Carolissen for helping me check the lab access figures.]

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