By Lucky Masilela

Year-end examinations for the academic year 2020 are upon us, and the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) learners are already at it.

As with any milestone in life, the conclusion of a school year calls for reflection and adjustments for both the learners and those running education. In wrapping up 2020 our priority adaptation should be: accelerating the conversion of South African schools into e-schools or transforming them for the digital era. This goes for the physical school infrastructure and the human resources.

Digitisation is already the core of four out of the African Union’s 15 flagship projects. Vision 2063 lists these projects as the Pan-African E-Network, Cybersecurity, Pan-African Virtual and E-University and the Outer Space Programme.

President Cyril Ramaphosa endorsed this digitisation drive in his acceptance of South Africa’s chairing of the African Union in February. In his Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan to a Joint Hybrid Sitting of Parliament recently, he opened with a lot of emphasis on “extraordinary measures to restore our economy to inclusive growth”, among others.

South Africa needs a solution to our immediate problems of unemployment, business failure, economic distress in general.

However, a bigger tragedy is in how exclusive the economy remains – keeping the majority of South Africans out of the mainstream economy, not due to legislative restrictions, but the unintended whiplash of our failure to prioritise Internet access for all.

Although the economic downturn can be reversed in the next three years, the damage done to our children’s education will take generations to fix, unless something decisive is done before the start of the 2021 academic year. Information and communications technology (ICT) is pivotal to turning this corner.

Anxiety persists globally over whether the second wave of the pandemic will predate the vaccine.

Even in the world’s largest economy, the US, teachers’ unions are pushing back against what they consider reckless reopening of schools.

Contact teaching will remain susceptible to disruptions due to Covid-19 or other external factors. Over 430,000 teachers in South Africa’s 25,154 ordinary schools teach more than 12 million learners daily, according to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). This excludes private schools and schools for learners with special educational needs.

Engrossing, formative and relevant learning activities are vital to the daily developmental growth of these learners. Since the March 18 closure of schools to observe the national state of disaster lockdown, optimal learning and teaching got compromised by a weak ICT infrastructure and exorbitant data costs.

In planning the year ahead, the DBE should work with civil society to equalize access to quality educational ICT infrastructure and Internet connectivity – as a matter of utmost urgency. This inequality is a huge component of our unhealthy Gini coefficient, the measure of income inequality, which is above 0.6 – among the highest in the world.

Narrowing this gap is a prerequisite to socio-political stability and the rule of law in the country.

Unaffordable data and a weak ICT infrastructure, therefore, are not only a problem in educating the 12 million learners in ordinary schools but are a perpetuation of income inequality. Reluctance to comprehensively address this in 2021 will sink our human development index – an indicator of the quality of life of average citizens – and frustrate the efforts to break the cycle of poverty.

Lucky Masilela is the CEO of ZACR.

The Star

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