With consistently poor matric results and ongoing conflicts at universities around the country, the South African education system is clearly in crisis. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mathematics and science results, with South African learners constantly ranking among the worst in the world. the 2015/16 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report placed South Africa almost dead last among 140 countries in the world in terms of maths and science education with only Egypt and Paraguay trailing behind it. Similarly the 2016 international maths and science study which tests 10 year olds and 14 year olds in the two subjects every four years placed South Africa near the bottom of the list of 57 countries. Although educational institutions and policy makers alike have scrambled to find solutions there has been little in the way of tangible improvements.
But a new generation of tech savvy entrepreneurs is turning its collective attention towards solving some of this country’s most pressing social challenges with education being an obvious place to begin. One such young entrepreneur is Zakheni Ngubo Senior Managing Partner at digital learning platform Syafunda. A Mandela Washington Fellow and a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship alumni Ngubo established Syafunda to address the consistently poor performances in maths and science in South African schools. Far from just another online platform or slick app, Syafunda takes its cue from widely sourced data to improve access to digital content through mobile technology
1. How does Syafunda work with schools, what does that partnership look like? How many schools are you working with now?
We set up a Syafunda Digital Library in schools, community centres and libraries preloaded with some of South Africa’s best educational digital content allowing students to download e-books, video tutorials, past papers and worksheets from our library of free and premium content ranging from education, entrepreneurship and IT on to their mobile device for free without the cost or access to internet or data. We are currently distributing our content to over 80 000 students in 47 schools as part of a sponsored project in collaboration with the Dept. of Education, Dimension Data and Virgin Unite.
We are running a campaign called “Adopt A School” where organizations, public or private, non-profit organizations and individuals can adopt a school by covering the annual costs of setting up and managing a Syafunda Digital Library in a school or centre of their choosing to allow over 1 500 students to gain access to the best digital education content in the country not only in Mathematics and Science but also in digital skills, entrepreneurship and career guidance and provide monthly analytics and student data to sponsors for impact assessment, marketing and public relations purposes.
2. How are SA’s young learners taking to mobile learning in general? Do you believe in a mix of traditional and mobile learning?
It is still a growing industry with a lot of potential considering that with approximately 3.5 million high-school learners between the ages of 15 and 19, about 76% own or have access to a mobile device. The problem is that access to hardware alone without relevant content and software does not aid in the education process. The majority of digital content in education is either too technical and therefore intimidating or unrelatable or irrelevant in the South Africa context, then there is also the high data cost of accessing it online.
To bridge the gap and make the digital experience less intimidating and relatable we integrate the best local teaching practices and classroom dynamics through interactive video tutorials and workbooks in a local context and languages within the dept of education framework with some of the best teachers in the country. By taking abstract concepts and bringing it back to daily experiences like chopping onions to increase the area surface or using a spoon as a catalyst to make sugar-water, we provide a mix of traditional and familiar elements of learning into a digital environment and that model is what has been working for us.
3. How can teachers work with Syafunda, particularly those who are not highly tech or digitally savvy?
We source and develop content with some of the best performing teachers in the country which can be very helpful in reviewing alternative teaching methods used by other teachers. This resource also helps students download and use materials at home to assist them with homework and revision. A teacher can send us their own summary notes, handouts and materials which we vet and upload for students to download and access digitally.
For teachers who have limited access to internet or are not as tech savvy we provide a simple to use battery powered offline hand held digital library that a teacher can own and travel with in between classes, edit, upload and share content with their students. We also provide teacher training in every school before we set up a server to help teachers get comfortable with using and helping their student access the platform.
4. How does Syafunda source and create its learning content?
me of the best Maths and science teachers in the country while getting a better understanding of the concerns and challenges teachers are facing on a daily bases. We therefore base our content on modelling the best and effective practices to assist both the students and teachers as learners get a wide variety of content from multiple sources and points of view while allowing for peer learning, engagement and sometimes mentorship between teachers both new in the profession and experienced.
To select teachers we look at the SA Teacher Awards over a 5 year period and analytics from the dept of education on the best performing schools and teachers. We then hold interviews and shortlisted teachers undergo auditions and we make our selection from there. Additional content we source through partnerships with publishers like Siyavula, Presto academy, Digify Africa, Pearson and the Dept of education to ensure content that will inspire, empower and educate our students in a wide range of issues from academia, entrepreneurship, IT, career guidance and life skills.
5. How important is the data and performance analytics element to the Syafunda model? What are the challenges around this?
One major problem we have identified is the lack of accountability, diagnostic and performance data on high schools particularly in the lower grades like 8 to 10 where there are no common tests. by setting weekly or monthly scheduled tests in line with the prescribed curriculum we can identify and flag problem areas and struggling schools early for intervention and research purposes. To help teachers cope with a high number of students we are working on giving registered teachers access to real time data and analytics to keep track of their student’s activity and performance and the ability to upload multiple choice assessments to be completed electronically to assist with marking and compiling reports.
We place accountability at the forefront and therefore the data is key in helping us be accountable by having accurate and efficient impact assessment tools not only for our clients and schools but also for our teachers, students and content. Analytics tell us which content and teachers is viewed the most, the usage and improvement in each student giving us feedback to help us improve our systems and content.
6. Tell us about the roll out of wireless functionality? Has this strategy worked?
When we started the project we had our content on our website and students could log on and get access to all materials and we soon realized that even though a lot of schools now have tablets and learners have access to cellphones internet was still a big issue. It was either too expensive or too slow which can be a challenge particularly in video material and it was really hard to control or monitor what learners were doing online.
What we developed was a solution of online registration and analytics but offline content in a digital library. We have digital libraries set up in schools and public libraries all pre-loaded with about 5 terabyte worth of video tutorials, eBooks, worksheets and software. Any student with a digital device can access the high speed free WIFI and download or stream any pre-loaded material they need without internet. this has really helped provide access to information to people who would otherwise not have it and our goal is to keep adding material that will continue to inspire, empower and educate.
7. What are Syafunda’s growth plans and overall strategy for the next few years?
Our goal is to expand our reach to 500 schools, 200 public libraries and 100 community centres by the year 2019 by creating value for our users and partners by solving some of their key challenges. Because the majority of students still don’t have access to textbooks due to price and logistics what we are working on is giving publishers an alternative channel to selling their textbooks that will eliminate the cost of printing, distribution and retailer shelf space. Students will be able to buy points which can be used to buy an encrypted digital copy textbook or certain chapters directly on our system at about R8 per chapter.