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Sunday, December 5, 2021

MTN Foundation SA: Using Technology To Overcome Covid-related Barriers In Education


WHEN South Africa entered the global mainstream of the Covid 19 pandemic with the confirmation of the first positive case in March last year, education was among the earliest casualties as the declaration of the National Disaster, even before the Nation Lock down led to a closure of schools. This has forced entities like the MTN SA Foundation to rethink their approach to supporting education.

“MTN believes in the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning” says Angie Maloka, a senior manager at the MTN SA Foundation.

A key feature of this support is partnership with the department of Basic Education, Department of Social Development, NGOs who provide specialised education as well as technology partners who provide equipment.

Maloka says the MTN Foundation’ strategy is revised every three years and the biggest challenges that the organisation is currently grappling with is Covid19, but also theft and vandalism at schools supported by the company.

MTN’s flagship education programme has been the construction of 350 media centres since 2014, which Maloka points out are more than computer laboratories as they consist of smart boards, printers, data to access the internet as well as off-line content.  

Fourty-five of these are at schools for learners with special needs including those who are deaf and blind, dyslexic and have physical disabilities.

Ten are community-based centres aimed at helping community members, including victims of Gender Based Violence, unemployed women and the youth to access computer training and information related to job or business opportunities.

Last year, the Foundation opened a media centre at the University of Zululand, to help first year students adapt to the use of computers at university.

The bulk of the centres are in primary and secondary schools, which are also loaded with digital content. MTN spent the past three years digitising all language and numeracy content for primary schools and developing content for Computer Applied Technology (CAT)for high school. For high schools, this included developing textbooks for the subjects enabling some schools to offer CAT and IT as formal subjects for the first time.

Teachers remain a vital component of the multi-media centres as they still play a facilitating role even in a digital or virtual environment. For every school that receives a multi-media centre, a minimum of 20 teachers are trained to use the equipment, with a coordinator training more teachers if required.

“And then Covid happened,” Maloka says of the predicament the company faced as its multi-media centres could no longer be accessed.

MTN has since partnered with Siyavula Foundation, an NGO academy that offers digital maths and science content. MTN has zero rated the website so learners can access it for free.

The company has now gone a step further and paid R 3 million a year to have the subscription based content made available for free. The subscription has since been renewed for a further two years, a period which Maloka forecasts Covid will cast a shadow over the education system.

A huge setback on for the MTN programme has been theft, vandalism and break-ins at the schools that have sophisticated equipment.  Last year, the Department of Basic Education reported that 1,577 schools suffered vandalism and theft during the lockdown, with computer particularly targeted.

“it’s heart-breaking, its painful” says Maloka, who was personally informed of a school that suffered a break in at the Vaal area on New Year’s Day. Maloka say such incidents disrupts the lives of learner who have CAT as a matric subject and have gone through Grade 10 and 11 but will now have no access to computers for their matric year.

It also disrupts the lives of teachers who used the labs for research as well as for lesson plans preparation. Finally, the community members who used the centres to prepare CVs and search for jobs have an important resource taken away.

MTN is now developing a fully fledged portal, which will have content, be interactive and have assessment capabilities so learners can be tested online. This will be accessible virtually to far more learners and will be rolled out in the next three years.

To complement the portal, learners will require suitable equipment. To prepare for this phase, last year, MTN piloted the distribution of 800 tablets nationally together with device manufacturer Huawei.

This year, MTN will distribute a similar number and schools are expected to manage these the same way they manage textbooks and loan them to learners.

Maloka acknowledges that the number is not sufficient, but says they hope to partner with other equipment providers to scale up the distribution in the years ahead.

This model will allow for greater access virtually in the event of disruptions like that caused by Covid19 and eliminates the threat of vandalism.

“Technology is a great equaliser” says Maloka of South Africa’s successful embrace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” It enables a child in Lusikisiki and one sitting in Sandton or Florida in the United Sates to access the same information when they do research on, say, photosynthesis.” 

Maloka notes that South Africa’s challenge is relatively low penetration of high-speed networks with some rural areas still on 2G network, unable to access advanced functionality.

“This requires government to speed up the process of opening up the digital spectrum, and there will be willing corporates and other partners who will take up the challenge of improving access” concludes Maloka.


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