In response to Covid-19, satellite internet provider MorClick, in partnership with YahClick (powered by Huges), decided to support the work of NGO, Khula Education, providing three months free internet to 15 schools in the remote Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift region of Zululand.
Little did MorClick know that this relatively small attempt to make a difference would deliver learnings critical to the future of education in South Africa.
Introducing multi-media digital learning experiences to both teachers and learners in deep rural South Africa has, “transformed learning, expanded the capacity to educate and dramatically improved the quality and effectiveness of teaching, literally, overnight,” says Debbie Heustice, director of Khula Education.
Supported by the David Rattray Foundation, Khula works to provide children from under-served rural communities with quality education. Khula also enhances teachers’ skills through direct support and training.
Lockdown presented a major challenge for the 20 schools that Khula supports in the uMzinyathi district. Neither teachers nor learners had laptops or i-pads to continue learning remotely.
“And even where teachers and children had access to a computer, there is only patchy internet signal on mobile phones in deep rural South Africa,” says Heustice.
Khula’s solution was a series of hard copy study packs delivered via a quickly improvised community drop-off system. The aim was to provide, “each child with, at minimum, an English and Maths self-learning study pack covering the curriculum for the first three terms of 2020,” explains Heustice.
The plan was to conduct learning via WhatsApp groups.
For most children, however, sitting at home with a study pack was no guarantee that learning would continue, “especially since few had access to smart phones, data is expensive and cell phone coverage is, at best, intermittent,” says Heustice.
This also meant that all the on-line resources that the government had put in place to support education through lockdown were equally, “beyond the reach of most of our rural learners.”
MorClick and YahClick’s partnership to provide free uncapped satellite internet to 15 Khula-supported schools transformed what was fast becoming an education crisis in the uMzinyathi district.
Overnight teachers could access resources, load and learn new programmes and connect with pupils via their phones or the internet. The sudden availability of strong and reliable uncapped internet also, “put us in a position to approach individual donors for i-pads,” says Heustice.
Today, KHULA has secured approximately 150 of the 200 i-pads needed. These i-pads are currently shared amongst seven of the 20 schools that Khula supports in the district.
The i-pads are used for lessons on a rotational basis. Learners can also situate themselves close to schools with free WiFi to receive streamed lessons and interact with teachers via email or online on their phones. In the afternoons the i-pads are also made available for self-study to students in Khula’s afterschool programme.
“Some principals have even encouraged local university students to use their school WiFi to help them continue their studies online when forced to return to their rural villages when universities closed,” reports Heustice.
In addition, teachers have acquired new skills, like how to develop digital content and push this to learners online. WhatsApp marking is also a valuable new skill making a big difference.
Principals particularly appreciate being able to receive circulars and send reports to the district via email, removing the need for extensive travel. Internet access has also taught teachers to access content from a variety of sources.
Being able to conduct school and district meetings, stream lessons remotely, and guide and interact with individual learners online or via email also means that every day the Khula teaching team can now reach many more teachers and learners across the district.
“We can be with one school virtually even though we are physically teaching at another,” says Heustice, adding that satellite internet access has expanded the reach, capability and quality of Khula’s teacher and learner support, achieving, “better learning outcomes while reaching far more teachers and learners than before Covid-19.”
This experience holds important lessons for how South Africa structures and resources education in rural South Africa.
The three-month MorClick Covid-19 support package that terminated at the end of August 2020, had provided global quality, uncapped, high throughput satellite internet to 15 schools at a cost to MorClick of approximately R1 000 per month per school.
When schools re-opened at the beginning of September 2020, MorClick developed an even cheaper package so that all of the schools could remain connected to satellite WiFi.
With only slightly reduced up- and down-load times, for approximately R750 per month per school, “15 of our schools in the uMzinyathi district continue to receive satellite internet,” says Heustice. R400 a month is raised from teachers and learners at each of these schools. Khula covers the remaining R350.
The MorClick package provided for each of these school includes one satellite dish and a router for each school. These generally provide the schools’ offices and a few classrooms with free WiFi.
Adding more routers over time will allow schools to extend internet coverage to all classrooms and even adjacent community facilities. For now, through these 15 satellite internet contracts, costing collectively, approximately R11 200 a month, “over 6000 learners and 200 teachers have access to streaming-quality internet in one of the most remote and under-resourced parts of South Africa,” says Heustice.
The learnings that this experience holds out for Treasury, the Department of Basic Education, NG0s, corporates, rural communities and individual rural South Africans are profound.
Education is the most significant driver of economic inclusion and opportunity. Finally, the technology is here to move every rural South African child and family out of poverty by, “affordably transforming their ability to integrate themselves into global knowledge and learnings value chains via satellite internet,” concludes Heustice.