We need to turn schools into technological hubs

ALTHOUGH it was on the eve of school holidays, the coronavirus pandemic, which has had a devastating effect worldwide, had an immediate impact on the education sector, with most primary and secondary schools being subjected to a forced early closure via a government directive and, meanwhile, the possibility of delays of their opening cannot be overlooked.

This incident thus reminds us of a need to turn our schools into technological hubs, so that in future they are better able to withstand the effects of such natural disasters, without severely affecting learners.

However, the need for transforming the education system in Zimbabwe comes despite the emergencies brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as the use of technology in schools remains relatively low and most schools exhibit hostile attitudes towards the use of digital technologies.

This manifests itself in random raids and confiscations by teachers of smartphones and laptops from students who dare to bring these forbidden digital gadgets into the school premises. Although it is possible to justify such behaviour, limited use of digital technologies and smart gadgets has prevented schools from tapping into benefits and conveniences made possible by the use of such technologies in the education delivery systems around the world.

The examination delivery system administered by the Zimbabwe School Examination Council (Zimsec) also occasionally comes to the spotlight with paper leaks and answer scripts that go missing in transit en route to the marker’s desk. This causes a lot of anxiety for students who, in the interests of preserving the integrity of the examinations, are sometimes forced to retake these exams. I can mention here also that the period between the writing of examinations, releasing of results and subsequent issuance of certificates is unacceptably long.

Recently, the examination registration process itself has come under scrutiny, as the process requires the physical presence of the student or parent to facilitate the registrations process, a scenario which is inconsistent with social distancing and lockdown orders. All this points to the need to embrace digital technologies to transform and upgrade our education delivery system to reasonable standards consistent with competent modern-day education delivery systems globally.

The objectives

The overriding objective of a tech-driven education delivery system in Zimbabwe is perhaps to improve the long-term effectiveness of teaching and teachers and improve pupil learning.

However, ICT will go a long way in modernising schools and equipping pupils with the requisite skills that will make them able to use such technologies in the workplace once they leave school. Teachers can benefit from ICT through reduced work-loads by making planning and resources available over the internet thereby reducing bureaucracy through providing and exchanging information in electronic form.

For Zimsec the ultimate objective will be to improve the security, efficiency, effectiveness, and economy of administering exams and, perhaps, to shorten the period between the writing of exams and release of results to acceptable levels.

Role of schools

Schools should be equipped with relevant ICT tools to enable them to effectively use modern innovations like computer-assisted instruction (CAI), computer based learning (CBL), virtual conferencing technologies (i.e. virtual classrooms) to improve pupil learning and the effectiveness of teaching.

These targeted interventions using ICT when combined with other forms of educational interventions such as peer tutoring and homework will have a greater positive impact on student performance.

ICT driven learning should improve students’ performance since students like using computers and can be expected to spend more time working at or practicing the skills being studied and tested than they ordinarily do when using hard copy study material only. To that end, the responsible use of the internet and smart gadgets and computers should be encouraged by schools rather than discouraged to facilitate efficient provision and exchange of information in electronic form.

The privileges of having the convenience of a tailored student portal should not be enjoyed by tertiary students only. High schools should also have professionally designed and maintained websites and enrolled pupils should have access to various school services via personalised student portals. This should bring convenience to the administration of the school and flexibility to students as some important services can be accessed via more convenient digital means. These include fees and levy payments, registering for Zimsec examinations, accessing statements of entry for subsequent printing, accessing school publications and literature such as rule books and disciplinary procedures, and study support resources produced inhouse by schools, etc.

Role of Zimsec

Zimsec should invest in relevant ICT systems which will enable it to transition from the current cumbersome manual exam administration and logistics processes to purely digital forms. This can be achieved through investing in a shared, dynamic relational database management system. Schools will be linked to this database and have access to it (limited to data about their particular school only) to facilitate data uploading, manipulation, and retrieval in real-time or near real-time.

Students’ answer sheets should be scanned and transmitted to markers in digital form and marking should be conducted using modern ICT technologies.
The database management system will enable the issuance of essential documents like candidates’ statements of entry and results slips to be transmitted through digital means, saving stationery, printing and transportation costs. Upon receiving such documents, schools can proceed to upload these to students’ portals who will then download and print the forms on their own.

Role of State, local authorities

The government, through the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, should formulate policy to ensure the safe and responsible use of ICT within government schools to improve teaching and learning. The government should also mobilise resources to support the use of digital technologies in government schools by coordinating ICT procurement and infrastructure provision which is central for the effective integration of digital technologies into the curriculum.

It should also provide a framework for curriculum development in ICT to ensure that the curriculum enables students to become confident and creative developers of digital solutions through the application of ICT systems, thereby enabling pupils to take up active roles in meeting current and future needs.

Local governments who are responsible for community libraries should support this ICT driven learning by modernising libraries and equipping them with requisite infrastructure to facilitating the use of digital technologies in them.

Conclusion

Technology should no longer be viewed as a good option to consider, but should rightly be seen as a key enabler in positioning our schools as competent educational institutions providing world-class education standards. It will enable our schools to produce competent students with the requisite skills, which are capable of meeting the demands of the modern business world. The transformation of the education delivery system will require substantial amounts of funding and as such should be seen as a long-term goal. However, the appropriate time to take the initial steps towards this vision is now, we cannot afford to defer this to a later date.

Nkosilathi Lesley Ngwenya, ACCA Accounting student, Accounting Intern at the City of Bulawayo and a part-time mathematics tutor. I write in my own capacity and views contained herein in this article are my personal views.