SA is rich with the hopes, dreams and ambitions of children, but they are growing up in a fast-changing world, one with ever-shifting job-market prospects, and an increasingly unpredictable future.
In October, CNN reported on the dire consequences of the pandemic for education in poorer parts of the world, reflecting that, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), about 300-million learners across Africa have been affected by Covid-related school closures.
Disturbingly, Save the Children has warned that, in addition to an estimated 258-million children who were already not attending school, a further 10-million are unlikely to return due to rising poverty and funding cuts induced by the crisis.
Far beyond anything anyone ever expected, the pandemic has dramatically altered our understanding of how the paradigm for learning must evolve.
Covid-19’s big lesson is that there’s an urgent and fundamental need to make virtual education more accessible to all sectors of society. And digital technology is a key driver for that transformation.
“If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that our teachers and youth need to look at harnessing the power of technology to supplement traditional forms of teaching and learning,” says MTN SA Foundation’s general manager Kusile Mtunzi-Hairwadzi, for whom education is a personal passion.
Mtunzi-Hairwadzi says the MTN SA Foundation has contributed significantly towards education by supplying school multimedia in economically marginalised communities with equipment.
The foundation also funds training for teachers, provides support and maintenance, and works with municipalities to ensure that electricity is available for these centres to operate, while MTN itself ensures internet connectivity.
During the pandemic, however, traditional brick-and-mortar facilities at schools became inaccessible. So strategies for enabling access to e-learning had to be developed and rapidly rolled out, so that teachers and lessons could reach learners virtually.
“I'm not going to negate the importance of a teacher,” Mtunzi-Hairwadzi says. “It’s very important for children to interact with teachers, and to interact with fellow students. But sometimes life teaches us that we need to think beyond today — and also think outside the box.”
The pandemic prompted precisely such out-of-the-box thinking — a seismic reimagining of education. Plans and ideas that had been on the table for some time were accelerated.
MTN zero-rated a range of university, TVET and school websites that gives its users access without having to use data. In fact, MTN has zero-rated about 1,000 websites, including hundreds of other educational, e-learning and public-benefit sites.
“The benefits of digitised curricula and e-learning platforms are many. They will complement conventional methods of learning and teaching in the post-Covid-19 era, expanding access to education and democratising scarce resources, including good teachers," Mtunzi-Hairwadzi says.
“While digital teaching may never be a silver bullet, it cannot be ignored that digital content is cheaper, eliminates textbook printing and distribution costs. What’s more, thousands of books can be stored on a single device, and digital books and information stored in the cloud can regularly and instantaneously be updated: the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.
“Education is essential, but if children can’t reach education, let the education reach the children no matter where they are,” she says. “Whether in rural areas in poorer schools, or stuck at home, everyone deserves an equal chance of education and an equal chance of realising their dreams.”
This is why MTN has been enabling more learners to continue their education beyond the confines of the brick-and-mortar environment. “We will continue with plans to explore a platform that will make it possible to create a huge MTN e-school that will be accessible to all South Africans. It will teach grade R all the way up to tertiary level. And we want to include skills development and health education. We want it to be as relevant as possible to our communities.”
* This article was paid for by MTN.