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.]

Internet and electricity are also basic needs for South African schools

Basic infrastructure for every school.
Basic infrastructure for every school.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are particularly apparent in educational infrastructure. While some children don’t have toilets, brick classrooms or electricity, others go to schools with broadband, computer labs, laptops or tablets, which they start using before they even go to school. Such technologies are often flaunted as markers of superior education, and used to differentiate expensive private or semi-private schools from the cheap or free government schools.

According to our constitution, everyone has the right to equality, and to a ‘basic’ education. In addition, the state needs to take reasonable measures to progressively make it possible for more citizens to access further education. Should internet access and electrical infrastructure be considered part of this ‘basic’ package that must be made available to all South African children? If schools introduce children to internet use, isn’t that a  ‘reasonable’ way to facilitate their access to further education later in their lives?  I would argue that it is.

Much of my own research focuses on the problems of technological solutionism. In other words, it’s a serious and often expensive mistake to believe that you can ‘solve’ difficult social problems such as education with technology. Technology projects are often poorly conceived forms of conspicuous consumption. Actual educational adoption is slow and tends to amplify existing pedagogic practices – what teachers already do. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that,  if infrastructure is not in place in some places, and is made accessible elsewhere, (particularly a highly enabling infrastructure such as the internet) you are effectively guaranteeing that the system perpetuates and magnifies existing inequalities.

Equal education have shown us how desperately some South African schools need sanitation and classrooms – children don’t have a hygienic toilet to use and principals struggle to access and maintain simple educational technologies such as desks and textbooks.  So it seems very Marie Antoinette to say ‘give them internet’. At the same time equal education increasingly does require connectivity, electricity, and creative, well-trained teachers and support staff who can make the most of available infrastructure. This means understanding local circumstances and practices in order to help teachers and young people to access and create online resources and networks via appropriate technologies and in local languages.  See for example, what the Shuttleworth Foundation managed to achieve a couple of years ago with basic feature phones and publishing mobile novels in isiXhosa on MXit, and more recently there’s this popular user-generated digital library which records local knowledge in isiZulu. For resilient local connectivity, there’s  this promising looking Kenyan-designed BRCK or ‘backup generator to the Internet’, which could work well with mobile devices.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga  has invited the public to comment on the Draft Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.My colleagues and I prepared some comments in response to the invitation and in support of the campaign by local NGO Equal Education for basic norms and standards:

We are a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town. Our projects focus specifically on digital and mobile communication in young people’s access to education and participation in youth culture. This work makes us painfully aware of the challenges faced by educators and learners in the South African education system, the barriers to young people’s participation in higher education, and the ongoing role of infrastructural inequalities originating in apartheid education. For example, in 2006, 17 percent of schools had no electricity, 12 percent had no reliable water source on site, 68 percent had no computers, 80 percent had no libraries, and 24 percent had grossly overcrowded classrooms, housing 45 learners or more (South Africa, 2008). Inequalities in adoption of computers and the Internet in this context has been documented relatively extensively in the academic literature, including our own research (see for example, Haupt, 2008; Kreutzer, 2009; Deumert, 2009; Walton, 2010; Pallitt, 2008; Prinsloo & Rowsell, 2012; Prinsloo & Walton, 2008; Schoon, 2012; Venter, 2012; Walton & and Kreutzer, 2009; Walton & Donner, 2012; Walton, Marsden, Hassreiter, & Allen, 2012; Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). Given the findings of this research we support Equal Education’s call for equalisation of the available infrastructure in South African schools, and their campaign for Minimum Norms and Standards for school infrastructure. In particular our comments on the draft norms and standards highlight areas within our expertise, notably the need to make electricity, Internet access and crucial educational spaces such as libraries, computer labs and media centres available to all learners in South Africa.

 Here is the document with our comments: Comments on norms and standards (pdf).

In my case, the comment was informed by recent research that I conducted with Jonathan Donner on a study of young people and internet use in public libraries and cybercafes in Cape Town. As a result of the study I became even more aware of the extent to which public library infrastructure for young people is grossly inadequate and overextended in Cape Town. To a large extent this can be attributed to the way people turn to public access facilities such as libraries and cybercafes to compensate for the inadequacies of school infrastructure and availability, and the excessively expensive cost of airtime and out-of-bundle mobile data in South Africa.

‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’ – realizing this goal of the Freedom Charter involves more than providing a desk and a toilet or plugging a device into an electrical socket and connecting it to the internet. But I fear that if we don’t provide these basic infrastructures, the dream of equal education will continue receding  further and further out of our reach.