The computerisation of South Africa's schools took a giant step forward yesterday with a new pilot project demonstrating what server-based computing, wireless networking and rugged laptop computers can achieve. 


To date, installing computer in schools has been fraught with challenges – chiefly that of security, with literally hundreds of computers meant to uplift schoolchildren being stolen.
Yesterday, the Abel T Motshoane High School received 100 new Intel Classmate mobile computers and also became the first school in the country to make use of WiMax broadband access.
It is hoped that the ability to lock the small mobile computers in a safe at the end of the day will solve some of the security problems. In addition, the computers have been made less attractive to thieves by operating on a server-based computing model – so applications are only available if the computer is logged into the network. In addition, the WiMax network is "locked down" outside the school's perimeter, so the computers can't access the network and will shut down permanently after three days.
Features of the classmate PCs include rugged design, teacher and parent control to monitor the students’ activities and theft control which render the units unusable should they be removed from the school’s network environment. The units are powered by Intel processors, full networking capabilities, Microsoft Windows XP operating system and access to rich educational content.
Devan Naidoo, Intel South Africa country manager, comments: “What is particularly unique with this project is not only the fact that it is the first time that the classmate PC pilot has been launched in this country but also that it is the first collaborative corporate social investment (CSI) project in South Africa.”
In the case of Abel T Motshoane High School, the Gauteng Department of Education partnered with D-Link, EMS Industrial, IBM, Intel, LearnThings Africa, Microsoft, Mindset, Pinnacle Micro and Telkom Foundation to roll-out a complete end-to-end solution that encompasses all aspects of ICT and education from the hardware, connectivity and educational content all the way to providing teachers with the training to gain the most benefit from the solution.
“A co-ordinated program provides benefits for all role players. The Education Department is able to lay down guidelines and standards for donations and to co-ordinate these donations in line with its own plans and policies for education; donor companies gain recognition from the government for their efforts, obtain bragging rights while at the same time ensuring that their efforts remain cost-effective and efficient; and the recipient schools gain an ICT infrastructure that supports a teaching and learning environment that is both impactful and sustainable.
"While most companies recognise the need for social investment, it is important for them to recognise that they need to join forces with their peers as well as the relevant government departments if they are to make a real difference."
Angelina Motshekga, Gauteng MEC for Education, acknowledges that installing technology is simply the first step in the ongoing school computerisation project.
"We need to ensure the educators themselves understand these tools and how to plan for and use them in a way that doesn't obsolete their usual teaching methods," she says.
"New methods are required and we need to get people used to the culture of ICT in teaching. People also need to understand that this is not going to replace the teachers, but enhance them."
Gauteng is working towards a target date of 2009 for all schools to be computerised. The rest of the country is aiming to towards 2013.