By Dennis Lamberti*

South Africa’s dawn of democracy in 1994 brought about hard-won freedoms that included critical human rights such as access to the free flow of information and quality education.

Dennis Lamberti.

It’s interesting that in 1994, the internet landscape in South Africa was also only just getting started with the country’s first commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP) only being a few months old at the time.

Like the rest of the world, internet access has grown quickly in South Africa since then with an estimated 67% of the country’s population — or just over 33 million people —  being connected in 2019.

This growing level of connectedness presents great opportunities for rolling out high-quality e-learning to more South Africans than ever before.

But in order to truly unlock the opportunities that the internet brings to learning, there are five key considerations to bear in mind when it comes to the South African education space.

Reducing high data costs

Making data cheaper in South Africa will obviously help drive up the adoption of the likes of e-learning.

In recent years, the #datamustfall movement has put the issue of high internet data prices under the spotlight in South Africa.

When it comes to lowering data costs, it’s been encouraging to see new market players seeking to disrupt in this regard, even though they are primarily limited to urban areas at this stage.

Added to this, new regulations that seek to curb the expiry of data among mobile networks have also been encouraging.

However, South Africa has a long way to go as the country still ranks just 143 out of 230 countries when it comes to its data costs, according to recent research released by broadband market analyst firm Cable.co.uk.

By actively working to reduce these costs, more South Africans can benefit from the incredible learning power that the internet possesses.

Making data completely free for learning

There’s no doubt that reducing data costs over the long-term will be essential to making digital learning more accessible to more South Africans.

Yet there is another solution that involves going one step further by encouraging local mobile networks to make data costs completely free for specific e-learning websites.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing local networks over the years ‘zero-rating’ several online services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and even Wikipedia.

It’s clear then that mobile networks have the capability to roll out this free access to a niche set of applications and platforms while still earning revenue from all other online offerings.

By zero-rating selected e-learning websites and apps, such an initiative could form part of these mobile networks’ Corporate Social Investment (CSI) initiatives and make a massive difference to millions of learners across the country.

Taking online learning offline with apps

Interestingly, e-learning smartphone apps also have a role to play in boosting education by taking online learning ‘offline’.

By using e-learning smartphone apps, learners can update their content when they are in a free Wi-Fi zone, such as at their school or even a shopping mall.

Many e-learning apps out there enable this capability and allow learners to download and even upload content via their smartphones.

Once at home, these learners can then run that content directly off their smartphone.

Structuring unstructured e-learning content

Making e-learning as cheap as possible is just the first hurdle to overcome in order to empower the digital learning experience in South Africa.

This is because there is a further need to create more structured e-learning platforms in South Africa and across the globe.

While there is a lot of learning material for many school subjects on platforms such as Khan Academy and even YouTube, it can still be difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for.

It can be challenging, for instance, when it comes to searching for content part of a CAPS aligned curriculum.

Then there’s also the risk of being distracted by adverts and other content on these platforms.

In an ideal world where data costs are falling or even free, the case for using paid-for e-learning options – which structure this content – becomes more feasible.

Rethinking learning and the classroom

Finally, teachers need to have a good understanding of what’s out there when it comes to e-learning so that they can direct learners in the classroom to relevant online content which will help them enhance their learning experience.

Teachers also need to understand the power of apps and which apps can deliver the most value to their learners.

E-learning can also assist in supplementing learning in the classroom by providing lessons from other top-quality teachers in the country.

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s clear then that internet technology can bring unlimited benefits to learners in South Africa.

But it will be critical that in the next 25 years we move to truly unlock this medium for more South Africans and make the best possible use out of it.

The benefits will be that we can help create a better-educated country and citizenship that can fully make use of their hard-won democratic freedoms.

  • Dennis Lamberti is Development Director at Media Works, which has been South Africa’s leading provider of adult education and training for over 22 years.