Four projects that demonstrate how technology can transform teaching and learning in South African schools have been honoured at the annual Microsoft Innovative Teachers Forum awards.

The winners’ projects allow learners to use ICT to become more aware of global issues through a networking group; to teach the elderly community in their area how to blog; a virtual reality art museum; interact with their local governing bodies to solve local problems via the various online media; and sharing maths and science lessons with underprivileged schools via video conferencing and desktop sharing.
The winners were chosen from a host of entries submitted by teachers around the country – all of which showcased just how information and communication technology can be used to make teaching in urban and rural schools more effective. The projects were independently judged on innovation in the use of technology and in teaching methods – all against the backdrop of how this positively impacts the experience of students.
The category winners are:
* Fiona Beal, of Fish Hoek Primary in the Western Cape, was named the winner of the Community category for her ‘Bonding through Blogging’ project. This sees Grade 4 and 5 learners opening the door to a whole new set of exciting relationships and enriched learning experiences by blogging and using Web2 tools. They connected with the local elderly community, teaching them how to blog, as well as with classrooms around the globe, in collaborative writing projects.
* Cheryl Douglas, of Bishops High School in Cape Town, walked away with the Collaboration category prize for her project, ‘Teaching for the Future’. This ongoing project involves using ICT to encourage learners to be aware of global issues with an emphasis on sustainability, by defining how to increase awareness of global issues in the classroom by creating an extramural Global Issues Network group.
*  Rae Gagiano, of Eunice High school in Bloemfontein, won the Content category prize for a ‘Anytime Anywhere Art – bringing art wherever you are’ initiative. The aim of the project is to introduce learners to Visual Literacy through a diverse range of visual images by means of a Virtual Reality Art Museum. Learners work in groups to investigate art through interviews, studio visits, Skype, WebPages and internet. The combination of resources that are gathered forms a Virtual Reality Art Museum that isaccessible for educators and learners via the distribution of CDs.
* Hlengiwe Mfeka, of Mconjwana High School in Pietermaritzburg, walked away with the Context category prize for her ‘My Community, My Place, My Pride – can I make a difference?’ grade 10 Life Orientation project, which involved learners identifying a contemporary problem in their community and exploring it using various technological tools. Learners were then challenged to devise strategies to address the problem that they identified and these were presented to local community and government leaders, community members, educators and learners from other schools. It is hoped that the municipality might implement some of the suggestions through their Department Planning Programme. One of the groups developed a DVD to be used in Life Skills by other schools.
“The awards represent the pinnacle of work done to create local communities of teachers who can share challenges, ideas and best practice solutions with their peers, supported by ICT,” says Trudi van Wyk, the national director of curriculum innovation at the Department of Education.
“They are doing great work to give the future leaders of this country the skills they will need for future employability – and to become productive citizens of our knowledge economy and information society.”
Now in its fourth year, the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Forum awards are a collaboration between Microsoft South Africa and the Department of Education. Major support is also lent by the investments of the Africa School Technology Innovation Centre (STIC), Dell SA Development Fund, SMART Technologies and its local distributor VastraTech, Learnthings Africa, SchoolNet SA, Mindset and The Teacher.
“South African teachers are increasingly embracing technology as a tool to enliven and enrich their teaching environments, and overcome historical and socio-economic disadvantages to give their students the best possible education,” says Reza Bardien, Microsoft South Africa’s education lead.
“This kind of local community helps overcome the fact that not every South African school has easy, affordable access to information technology. It also provides a critical framework for our teachers and students to acquire the skills they need to make the best use of technology in teaching and learning.”
In the run-up to the awards, teachers have attended nine Innovative Teacher Forum (ITF) workshops across the country during March and April, giving them the chance to network, share ideas and refine their entries into the national awards.
The awards reviewed projects in four key areas of innovation – community, content, collaboration and challenging contexts, as well as a special peer review prize, where the finalists vote for their favourite project. The winners now have the chance to compete at the Pan African Innovative Teachers Forum, which will be held in Mauritius in September.
A fifth educator, Frans Kalp of Ligbron Academy of Technology in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, was named winner of the Peer Review category for his "Teaching and Learning from a distance" school community project, which sees mathematics and science lessons shared with rural, disadvantaged and underperforming schools by using video conferencing and desktop sharing.
Experienced teachers share their lessons during school hours and give the teachers and learners of the connected schools the opportunity to raise questions and work on the same lesson from their own classrooms. Connected schools are linked to a central server for the sharing of all mathematics and science resources that have been used by the project schools. All the connected schools are in a radius of 50km from Ligbron Academy of Technology.
The four winners each received a laptop from Dell SA Development Fund and Digital Curriculum Content from Learnthings Africa and Mindset. The peer review winner received a SMART Board interactive whiteboard from SMART Technologies, as well as an NEC projector and teacher training from VastraTech.
Past ITF SA winner Jacqui Batchelor is currently doing her PhD on the ITF. “Being a past participant in the Microsoft Innovative Teaching Forum has influenced my own teaching practice immensely and has changed my perspective on learning technologies and the strategies teachers employ in differing contexts,” she says.