Time for liberation of education

Wednesday, 30 June 1999

The best possible education doesn't necessarily come out of a classroom. Why not rethink the way we go about teaching our children?

Human beings didn't always have schools. Learning about the universe we live in and how we interact with her is — if one stops to think about it — not really necessary for survival beyond satisfying basic requirements from day to day. The fisherfolk who inhabit the rural coastline north of upper Moçambique really have no need to understand that space is curved or that as one approaches the speed of light, one's length decreases and mass increases and time moves more slowly. They doneed to understand the rhythm of the oceans and calculating tides and predicting storms, but they don't go to school to do so. They learn by example from each other and otherwise live comfortable happy lives, thank you very much.

I don't for a moment suggest that we should abandon the ways of civilisation, put on the skins and take up the bows and arrows or spears of our ancestors, and live off the land. The point is that the classroom is very much a peculiarity of civilisation as we know it, and is not really essential to learning. For all of us, our earliest learning takes place before we go anywhere near a classroom from our primary caregivers (which for most of us would be our mothers). We all tend to learn very well during this period. Then we head off to school, and things turn upside down. Individual attention gets supplanted by the need to pass on the same information to a number of children at the same time.

Some of us are luckier than others. There are fewer of us per teacher, there are real playgrounds with real toys that help stimulate learning, and there are computers in heated classrooms…

Then there are those of us who are barely able to listen because we are huddled in classrooms with broken windows swept by winter wind and rain.

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When I arrived in Cape Town in 1997, I asked the question: What would it take to fix this at the most basic level? How much would it cost to equip our “previously disadvantaged” schools (they're still disadvantaged, dammit) to the same standards as the Model C schools? I sent the then Cape Times education reporter off to the Western Cape Education Department, and she came back with an answer: R262-million. A huge amount of money, one would think...

Except I then took a look at the figure as a percentage of the total education budget for the province and came up with a figure of about 25%. For a quarter of the education budget, this mess could be fixed. Where was the billion or so rand allocated to education being spent? The answer was that more than 90% was being spent on salaries.

Now it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if all of your money is being spent on personnel, you're not going to be able to fix the infrastructure. But you can't reduce those personnel costs because the monopoly providing those personnel have fixed their costs at the highest levels in the third world. And, like the drug companies, they won't allow parallel imports from other third world countries who would do at least the same job at a much lower rate.

Let's hop back in time about eight years. I'm a senior research scientist in the Computer and Networks Division of the Centro di Ricerca, Sviluppo e Studie Superiore in Sardegna (which translates to Centre for Advanced Studies, Research, and Development in Sardinia — CRS4 for short). We've installed a 2 megabit connection from the island to the Italian mainland which links us from there to the US Internet via CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. The hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) — which will later give birth to the World Wide Web — is still being developed by scientists at CERN. Africa, some 120 nautical miles south of us, is an internet wasteland with only a handful of academic institutions in South Africa accessing electronic mail over slow and expensive dial up connections.

Dr Gianluigi Zanetti, a colleague in the Scientific Visualisation Division, comes to me with a proposition. What if we were to find an affordable way to connect the Sardinian school system to the resources of the internet, especially electronic mail and news? There's a wealth of information out in cyberspace; literature, scientific texts — all of it free.

This information could be translated into Italian and Sardo and redistributed, and discussions could be held around these issues in cyberspace. We brainstorm over several lunch sessions and I come up with a working model which I christen 'Mirtonet'. (Mirto is the Sardo word for the ubiquitous myrtle berries which are as synonymous with the island of Sardinia as is the protea with the Western Cape.)

I won't bore you with technical details, but the principle is quite straightforward. There are a number of companies that are buying Internet connectivity from CRS4 primarily for electronic mail. These connections lie idle at night. Mirtonet will allow PCs at school to dial into the company networks at night to exchange mail and news. It's of no cost to the company since they have already paid for the bandwidth, it's of low cost to the school since phone calls are always local and and cheaper at night. Capital cost at the school end would be an entry level PC and a modem with free software based on Linux written by my team at CRS4. Gianluigi translates the model into Italian, local schoolmasters and businesses are enthusiastic, and we are soon up and running.

Mirtonet is significantly different today. The invention of Mosaic, the first Web browser by the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, drove the development of modem and dial up connectivity at a blistering pace so that interactive connectivity became affordable. Usage of the UUCP software that drove Mirtonet is rapidly dying out in the first world although it is still used very effectively here in South Africa by the schools network for e-mail. But keep the basic concepts at the back of your mind, because the Italians are now a force on the Internet, and the students who worked for us on the Mirtonet project went on to turn those concepts into a successful commercial venture that was subsequently bought out by Telecom Italia.

Now fast-forward to Africa today and to the continent's capital, Johannesburg. There's a small company operating out of downtown premises that lists among its clients the likes of Absa, Old Mutual, Alexander Forbes, Eskom, Sanlam, and BMW. Said company, Global Access, combines telecommunications, broadcasting, and computing to come up with a basket of goodies they call interactive multimedia broadcasting.

What's this all about? Global Access (which those of you with Digital Satellite Television may have noticed listed among the "scrambled" channels) pulls together video conferencing, interactive television, and Web-TV. The companies I mentioned earlier use their services for business TV broadcasts across their national corporate structures. BMW goes once step further using it to perform two-way interactive communication between its head office and dealer network. But let me quote from a recent Financial Mail report (June 25) on the operation:

Each dealer is linked to the Global Access studio through its TV, satellite dish, and integrated receiver/decoder. Each user of the system has a keypad with a built-in microphone that enables him to log in to the broadcast, answer questions, cast votes, and complete tests… Dealers no longer have to send staff away for training and information … the data goes directly to where the staff are, It satisfies about 80% of (BMW's) SA training requirements.

Let's put that thought on hold too while I get personal. My late grandfather, who lost most of what he had worked for during his lifetime as a result of the Group Areas Act, was the person who taught me how to read before I got to school. "Education," he said to me, "is the one thing they will never be able to take away from you."

My daughter now reads about as well as I used to when I was her age, but I haven't taught her. She has taught herself, working on her Macintosh computer learning from educational software that is pretty cheap in US dollars, but cost more money than I've spent on myself since she was born. The software encourages her through songs, movies, interactive pictures, games, puzzles. It also generates reports of her progress which I'm able to access to make sure she isn't falling behind. (I haven't bothered because she comes to me for advice if she runs into difficulty.) Sometimes, just for the heck of it, she switches the language on the software to Spanish. Yes, it's multi-lingual.

Picture the same interactive learning environment on a national scale combined with the technology used by BMW from Global Access. Every school kid interacts with the computer network in his or her own mother tongue (remember that this is one of the most important components of education in formative years). Their progress is assessed continually by deux ex machina who is able to ensure that each child progresses at his or her own rate. Learning difficulties are flagged early on so that children can receive guidance earlier rather than later.

It's the classroom of the next millennium. Suddenly, staffing schools is not about juggling teachers and redeploying them to match demographics and subject requirements in each area. There are fewer teachers, and they work in Gauteng or the KwaZulu Midlands or wherever there is a satellite uplink, but from the child's point of view, the teacher is right there – one on one, in her own mother tongue.

What needs to happen to pull all of this together? Jay Naidoo started the ball rolling during his term as minister responsible for broadcasting and telecommunications by proposing a high-speed network linking all of South Africa's schools and public libraries. Bandwidth is what's needed, and with the breakup of Telkom's monopoly a few short years from now, that process will accelerate at a dizzying pace.

But we should start the pilot projects now, targeting rural areas as far away from the industrialised megacities as possible. These schools of the future should be staffed not by teachers but by primary caregivers; parents and grandparents who would normally assume responsibility for educating their children for survival. One teacher's salary for a year will pay for at least a dozen computers. The likes of Telkom, Vodacom, MTN and MultiChoice can easily co-sponsor such a project - Mirtonet style - with what is for them an almost zero-cost commodity; bandwidth.

Many years ago, houses in the United States used to be built out of bricks and cement. Then along came the bricklayers' unions who cranked the price of building houses to unaffordable levels. Today, most houses in the US are made of wood. The bricklayers' unions have long since crumbled, but people did not go back to building houses of brick. They discovered that wooden houses were more quickly erected and better insulated and even though they posed a fire hazard, that was compensated for by the fact that more people became aware of the need for smoke detectors. Nearly every small town in the United States is today able to depend upon volunteer fire departments who are on standby day and night. The volunteers are almost never needed, but they are there.

Teachers today have priced themselves out of the market. It's time for a paradigm shift. Who knows what strengths we may discover among ourselves?