Tech-books: Could smart devices solve the textbook crisis?

The recent textbook crisis in Limpopo has raised the question: how can we prevent this from happening in the future?

July 16, 2012

The recent textbook crisis in Limpopo, whereby schools received their books extremely late in the year as well as media reports of textbook dumping and irregular ordering and tender processes has raised the question: how can we prevent this from happening in the future?

Thus far, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Limpopo government being placed under administration last year, and so not having money to pay for the learning materials in question.

Wealthier schools have already “cut out the middle man” as it were, by using smart devices such as iPads and tablets to download their learning materials, avoiding delays in distribution and delivery. But is that really a viable option for South Africa?

Wesley Lynch, CEO of Snapplify, a mobile solutions provider, believes that it could be. “iPads and tablets can definitely aid the textbook crisis,” he says. “iPads in particular would probably feature more readily in private or wealthier schools, but Android tablets are more affordable and would provide a more realistic chance of institutions or the government being able to provide tablets to schools in South Africa.”

Lynch explains that tablets will provide access to textbooks that have been digitally published as eBooks and educational web applications. “These devices allow for a better and richer experience of the web in a way that perhaps many of the students would have only previously experienced on their mobile phones.”

Experts believe that quality applications can improve a learner’s ability to process information. “The potential is there to provide educational apps with multimedia which would help to explain the content in a more comprehensive way – the sciences in particular could benefit immensely,” Lynch explains. “Mobile apps, such as Snapplify, have had a good uptake on training and educational material, and mobile means the student can have all his textbooks and notes with him at all times.”

The  biggest issue facing schools wishing to implement smart device technology in their classrooms remains the cost.

“I don’t think we can solve the textbook crisis with technology alone. The cost of the tablet as well as the cost of downloading the information itself is still extremely high,” Jacques du Toit, MD of Vox Orion, warns. “Most rural areas still rely on GSM or 3G – if they have access to Internet connectivity at all. If government subsidies the cost of the device as well as the price of the Internet subscription, it could be revolutionary. With technologies such as the Smart board, for example, children in a rural farm schools could “attend” a class that’s being held in the city, and download and review the lesson at a later stage. We’re willing to make concessions to disadvantaged schools as much as we can to make this technology accessible, but broadband costs will have to be subsidised.”

Lynch agrees that government subsidisation is necessary to make such a system more affordable. “As long as the model for selling textbooks digitally is different to that of selling it physically, then economically the price of using eBooks will be cheaper – provided that the price of the device is subsidised by the government or institution. There are also other modes of providing textbooks, selling them chapter by chapter may reduce the overall cost of the textbook.”

It is also believed that innovations such as the recent satellite broadband service, YahClick, will provide greater access to the Internet in rural areas.

“This service specifically targets rural communities,” Jacques Visser, YahClick Project Manager has said. “We want to bring accessible, affordable internet to those users. We’ve already put hundreds of installation service providers in place around the country (in addition to our existing distribution network), to meet the needs of the customers who will be applying for the service or whom are already on the waiting list. This will mean that schools will have greater access to information and e-learning programmes.”

It seems as though the question as to whether or not technology can solve the textbook crisis is not easily answered. The cost of devices remain high, and broadband Internet is still quite inaccessible to rural communities. Should government wish to offset the cost of this investment with subsidies, technology may very well eliminate some of the problems of distribution and service delivery.