How digital is empowering an education system in crisis

2017-07-16 09:40 - Jessica Hubbard
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Easy learning: Any student with a digital device can download or stream any preloaded material they need without internet access. (Pic: Supplied)


Johannesburg - With consistently poor matric results and ongoing conflict at universities around the country, South African education is clearly in crisis.

Nowhere is this more evident than in mathematics and science results, with South African learners consistently ranking among the worst in the world.

The 2015/16 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report placed South Africa almost dead last among 140 countries in terms of its maths and science education – with only Egypt and Paraguay trailing behind it.

Similarly, the 2016 International Maths and Science Study, which tests 10-year-olds and 14-year-olds in the two subjects every four years, placed South Africa near the bottom of a list of 57 countries.

But a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs is turning its collective attention towards solving some of the country’s most pressing social challenges, with education being an obvious place to begin.

One such young entrepreneur is Zakheni Ngubo, senior managing partner at digital learning platform Syafunda.

A Mandela Washington Fellow and a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship alumnus, Ngubo established Syafunda to address the consistently poor performances in maths and science in South African schools.

Far from just another online platform or slick app, Syafunda takes its cue from widely sourced data to provide access to digital content through mobile technology.

“Through digital tests we identify, capture and monitor performance data and profile each student for support, career guidance and university bursary placement while giving our clients and schools real-time feedback and intervention capabilities,” explains Ngubo.

With a fierce commitment to both collecting and harnessing data and analytics from learners and schools, the Syafunda model has quickly gained traction.

Syafunda is distributing digital content to over 80 000 students in 47 schools as part of a sponsored project in collaboration with the department of education, Dimension Data and Virgin Unite.

To ensure that progress is being made, and that the approach actually addresses the challenges experienced by both teachers and learners, the data element is all-important.

“One major problem we have identified is the lack of accountability, and diagnostic and performance data with regards to high schools – particularly in the lower grades such as grade 8 to 10, where there are no common tests,” says Ngubo.

“By setting weekly or monthly scheduled tests in line with the prescribed curriculum, we can identify and flag problem areas and struggling schools early on for intervention and research purposes.”

In line with this strategy, Syafunda also gives registered teachers access to real-time data and analytics in order to keep track of their students’ activity and performance.

This includes the ability to upload multiple-choice assessments to be completed electronically to assist with marking and compiling reports.


According to Ngubo, mobile learning is still in its infancy in South Africa, but its potential to transform education at large is staggering.

He notes that there are about 3.5 million high school learners between the ages of 15 and 19, and of these learners, around 76% own or have access to a mobile device.

The key challenge, however, is that access to hardware alone without relevant content and software does not aid in the education process.

Ngubo points out that today, the majority of digital content in education is either too technical and therefore intimidating, or not applicable in the South African context.

Added to this, the high cost of data prohibits learners from accessing most digital content online.

To get around the connectivity issue, Syafunda offers offline wireless functionality by placing its servers in schools, libraries and community centres.

“What we developed was a solution of online registration and analytics, but offline content in a digital library,” explains Ngubo.

“We have digital libraries set up in schools and public libraries all preloaded with about five terabytes’ worth of video tutorials, e-books, worksheets and software.”

This enables any student with a digital device to access the high-speed, free Wi-Fi and to download or stream any preloaded material they need without internet access.

Sibusiso Maseko, principal at Zwelibanzi High School outside Durban, which has partnered with Syafunda for two years, says that the learning platform is having a very positive impact – particularly within science.

Maseko notes that the matric pass rate for science has increased by 10% since the learners have starting using Syafunda.

“Syafunda provides learning material to students in their mother tongue [isiZulu], which really helps them to understand the actual content,” he explains. “When they engage with this material outside of class, we see that they begin to take their formal, in-class learning more seriously.”

Maseko hopes Syafunda will expand its content and programmes to other subjects in the near future, not just maths and science.

Syafunda aims to expand its reach to 500 schools, 200 public libraries and 100 community centres by 2019. – Finweek

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