In implementing eLearning initiatives, even the best laid plans can go awry. Fiona Wallace is the Manager of CoZa Cares, the corporate social investment (CSI) arm of UniForum SA (the not-for-profit organisation which administrates the .co.za domain space). She spoke to Prue Goredema of the eLearning Africa News Service about the need for a sustainable game plan in the promotion of IT use in South Africa’s schools.
In a nutshell, what is CoZa Cares?
About 15 years ago, UniForum SA elected to channel its entire surplus funding into social development work. Because IT is the sector from which all the founding directors originated, and education is such a pressing priority in South Africa, it seemed logical to direct this funding into IT in schools. And so, the ‘School of the Month’ project was born. Every month, one South African school was identified as the recipient of a refurbished, Open Source computer laboratory. Alongside this developed the understanding that teachers needed training in computer skills, and a partnership with the Internet Service Providers’ Association was created with both organisations allocating funds to a ‘Train the Teacher’ initiative. The third leg of CoZa Cares’ sponsorship at this early stage was directed into the development of digital and video content (published under a creative commons licence) to support the teachers of IT in secondary schools.
You’re facilitating learning for others, but what have you learnt about doing CSI work?
In essence, a fixed computer centre, content development and teacher training have remained at the core of our outreach activities, and to date over R40 million (about €3.8 million) has been spent. Experience, failures and successes have been great teachers in South Africa, on the Continent and internationally as the eLearning Africa ‘family’ will tell you. The sustainability of these types of projects has separated successful interventions from the short-term ‘come-in-build-a-lab-cut-a-ribbon-and-leave’ approach too often associated with CSI responses to schools. This is what many term ‘e-dumping’: a completely unsustainable solution that is most disrespectful of schools and their communities.
So how has CoZa Cares’ response been any different?
Sustainability is our mantra. This is possible only when the primary focus is not the hardware but rather capacity-building, content provision and school leadership. We take time to identify schools with strong leadership and then work together with principals and ICT ‘champions’ to develop a clear understanding of what the ICT environment will mean to a particular school. Of course, the targets remain under-resourced rural and peri-urban communities, but the ultimate vision is of an integrated ICT environment that the school itself is able to manage successfully. Training in basic computer skills remains important for many teachers, but a layered approach to skills development allows us to build on that literacy with training in classroom integration and courses in technical support. We provide funding for teachers to attend relevant conferences to build their own knowledge and confidence, and to encourage sharing of good practice with fellow practitioners. The annual ISPA SuperTeacher competition is a highlight of our year.
South Africa is a big country. Are there any regions where you have yet to make an impact?
Although CoZa Cares now adds two schools each month to its family and is also involved in developing innovative learning centres serving many schools, its footprint remains small. In total, there are 250 ‘CoZa Cares Schools’ (with varying levels of intervention) in seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. The focus is now on clusters of schools in Limpopo and North West provinces where the involvement of the provincial education departments has been most supportive.
The CoZa Cares sustainability model, based as it is on relationship-building with schools, does not lend itself easily to quick, large-scale ‘roll-outs’. In fact, it is the drive to ensure ‘scalability’ that has so often proven to be the undoing of many ICT interventions at school level. It is an issue that is ‘top of mind’ for anyone involved in this type of work, and it’s a question that CoZa Cares grapples with. It may well be that we will decide not to continue with monthly installations, but to ring-fence our current schools by focusing on their continued development and support.
What is the biggest challenge you face in carrying out your work?
There is no doubt that poor Internet connectivity and the high cost of bandwidth are serious stumbling blocks to success, particularly in our rural and township schools. Until South Africa realises its vision of Internet for all, the reality of the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots will grow even wider. The provision of libraries in every school, while a laudable concept, is completely unaffordable. The cheapest, most efficient way of bringing the world’s knowledge to schools is through Internet connectivity – and much sooner rather than later.
CoZa Cares has partnered with other standing projects, including Netday Association, Mindset, ISPA and Edunova. With so many contributors, how are you able to maintain a single vision for advancing IT skills in the country?
Each organisation remains an independent partner or service provider in its own right. However, when working on CoZa Cares projects, each organisation remains committed to the goal of enabling sustainable ICT environments in under-resourced schools. Collaborative partnerships are essential to the success of our work.
Does the government still play a role in equipping schools with IT equipment?
Yes, there are a number of good provincial and national initiatives, and it is essential that organisations like us ensure that our work is aligned with the state’s strategic goals.
You recently sponsored the development and distribution of learning materials for Grade 12 IT teachers through the Mindset Learn project. Alongside mathematics, IT is one of the subject areas where matric pass rates are in decline. Do you have mechanisms in place to monitor the extent to which teachers and schools are deriving the most out of the materials you provide?
Any intervention in schools must be able to measure and monitor its successes and failures. CoZa Cares has undertaken to begin publishing the results of its own research this year. Funding has also been allocated to research into the general ‘state of affairs’ of the ICT school landscape in South Africa. The research aims to identify good practice and possibly to assist in developing ‘sharing communities of practice’, and also to feed solid data and information on successful models back into the national discourse and knowledge base.
What is the next step for CoZa Cares?
Probably the most exciting development going forward in 2012 is our transition from the CSI arm of UniForum SA to an independent public benefit organisation – the CoZa Cares Foundation. Watch this space!