During the apartheid years in South Africa, inequalities in resources and opportunities were the norm. Most of the population were excluded from basic human rights; the education sector, for example, provided no resources and training. In the townships this resulted in lack of education for the young black community, lack of employment opportunities and poverty.
Even today, many schools in the townships have no electricity or telephones and with up to 2,000 pupils per school, their buildings are often overcrowded. As a result, few schools have access to computers let alone the Internet. It is a difficult situation, but we have shown that with access to information and communications technology (ICT) in less privileged schools it is possible to provide new opportunities for education, employment and empowerment. I hope we can be an inspiration for other schools.
Our Soweto townships ICT scheme was established as part of a partnership between the University of the Witwatersrand and 20 township high schools. The Wits Partnership Project was intended to enable more pupils from the townships to enter further education by improving academic skills and confidence and had four components: the provision of school libraries; teacher development; the use of students to run enrichment classes for pupils in schools; and the establishment of computer centres.
I was recruited to the Wits project in March 1996 to establish computer centres in five of the 20 schools. Each centre had to give five other schools access to its equipment and was equipped with 20 IBM 486 PCs (linked to a network). The computers were installed with Microsoft Windows 3.1, Lotus Smart Suite, IBM Schoolview, Ultimaths and Cornerstone English. Two teachers from each centre were trained in trouble-shooting and use of software and were responsible for supervising after-school computer use.
The five satellite schools were allocated one day a week for computer access and, to prevent overcrowding, each was restricted to a maximum of 120 pupils per visit. With pupils working together on each workstation, 600 pupils attended computer classes at each centre every week.
To cover recurrent costs for running the centres a minimal fee of 50 Rand (about pound;5) was charged per year for each pupil, (although this didn't cover maintenance and daily running costs). And while the computers were donated to the project, the pre-installed software (costing pound;50,000) was funded by external financial support.
In 1997 phase two of the project - Internet connection and training teachers to use multimedia, the Net and website design - was launched in collaboration with a UK charity, The Internet Learning Trust. The project linked the five Soweto centres to schools in Birmingham to work on online projects involving principals, teachers and pupils.
So what have we achieved? Since 1996, over 200 teachers and 3,000 pupils have had the opportunity to acquire new skills in the use of ICT. And although it is hard to properly quantify the impact of these skills on career and study opportunities, we know many have benefited from the centres.
Wilfred Mohlala, who runs the Morris Isaacson centre, says more teachers learned about IT last year than ever. He hopes IT will be introduced into the curriculum. "I become so excited when I see students coming back saying they secured a job though their computer skills." His optimism is shared by teachers, pupils, community representatives and officials alike. Sihp Mzangwe, a computer educator who runs a similar centre at Letsibogo Girls High School, says the five schools in the partnership program are enjoying the benefits of their online link with each other and overseas: "We share topics and solve maths problems online."
Phindile Makhaya, a grade 11 Morris Isaacson student, says: "Computers have brought me a lot of ideas. I came up with the idea of a school magazine; I produced it with the assistance of the computer. Without the support of Wits, I don't know if the Morris Isaacson magazine would have been here."
Solly Mautjana, public relations officer of the Gauteng department of education district three, says: "I was here at the unveiling and we are honoured as a district to have this kind of a programme. A number of educators have been made computer literate." He adds that a number of the district officials including himself have done some IT training. But Mautjana says the challenges are massive. "As a community we are very under-resourced due to the cost of the systems."
He says teachers from other institutions also come after teaching time to get skills. One is Treaty Rajuili, a maths teacher at Molaetsa primary school. She says she loves her IT course, which she attends once a week at a cost of R200 per year (about pound;20). "I didn't know anything on computers so I came here," she says. "Now I feel confident as I follow what is being taught and I have a lot of skills."
Other teachers say access to ICT in the schools has opened up new approaches for teaching and improved their self-image and morale. And for pupils, not only has IT expanded their knowledge and boosted their self-confidence, it has allowed capable students from the townships to enter tertiary education. The Internet access has increased the range of opportunities for the schools and each of the five centres has developed it's own site at www.netschools.orgjobi We have learned many lessons to overcome our problems. Poor management and lack of computer literacy among principals, school governing bodies and parents results in lack of support for centres. Progress is also hampered by poor communication systems, such as insufficient telephones and fax machines. And we still face formidable funding difficulties, a major problem now that our initial three-year contracts with funders are coming to an end. For example, UUNet Internet Africa cannot continue to provide Internet connectivity for Soweto schools - those unable to pay telephone accounts will be disconnected.
Looking ahead, we hope to integrate ICT into the curriculum and provide access to the computer centre from morning to night. We also want to open community centres that will generate income by offering certificated courses (we will have to provide job-related programmes) and train principals to run the centres as a business as well as provide for the educational need for schools.
When I worked as a medical technician in a dental hospital, I asked a student from a rural area why she had chosen to study dentistry. She replied: "When I was young I had very severe toothache. There was no dentist in the area, nor even in the nearest town to help me. The pain led me to study dentistry."
I see my side of the story the same way. When I started working for the project I had not touched a keyboard and was frustrated when I was asked to help teachers during my visit to the centres; I stuck by computer educators so that I could turn to them if a teacher asked for help. I learned the hard way. As a result I will do everything possible to make ITC accessible to the people.
* A TEACHER'S TALE:Violet Madingoane
I grew up in a rural area, a statistic of child labour. Aged 15, I went to a farm school which was a huge tree, whose trunk supported the blackboard. There was only one teacher for four levels.
Later we moved to Soweto where I went to Morris Isaacson High School, and then went to be trained as a nurse. My intention was to become a doctor because my grandparents, who I lived with, were ill and there were no doctors in the rural area. I then got married before I completed my training. However, my husband would not allow me to go back to nursing. Four years later he died in a car accident, leaving me with three boys and a high school-grade education.
I was employed as a cleaner at the University Dental Hospital where I studied part-time and acquired several diploma certificates in life sciences. Twenty six years later I joined the Wits Partnership Project as a computer centre co-ordinator. I was not an expert in computers. In fact I had never used a computer before I started the project, so I had to learn as I went along. My words of encouragement for the principals and teachers are from experience - there is no need to be scared of computers. They are powerful tools for self-development.
* Violet Madingoane is computer centres co-ordinator with the Wits Partnership Project.
The Internet Learning Trust is a British educational charity working to ensure more equal access to learning opportunities through innovative uses of IT. It is in need of private sector sponsorship and has exciting opportunities for schools to link up with overseas partners. John Davitt provided the training for the initial project in Soweto and will help with the next phase in March. He is happy to aid involvement, from software donation to video conference links - firstname.lastname@example.org
Fumana High School's homepage: http:users.iafrica.comffhfhs
Musi High School's homepage: www.ilt.reading.ac.ukjobimusiindexpag.htm