Digital divide rife at schools in South Africa


Only 7,000 schools in South Africa are connected to the Internet, with 21,000 more falling behind in this regard. During his budget vote speech yesterday, Deputy Communications Minister Obed Bapela said the Department of Communications (DOC) has a responsibility to connect the 21,000 remaining schools.

The majority of these schools are in rural areas. “Today, we have only 7,000 schools connected.” He said this is due to challenges of capacity with reference to computer-learner ratio, human capital to deliver the service and other social problems such as theft.

Despite the large number of schools that are not connected, Bapela said plans are under way to also bring the e-health connectivity project up to speed, which is similar to the e-school connectivity plan.

“Mobile technologies can be instrumental in improving the quality of health services, while reducing the cost of patient care, particularly in under-serviced areas.”  The deputy minister said “enormous work” is under way to ensure government provides and delivers quality services to citizens through e-education, e-health, and e-rural connectivity.

“Broadband technology holds incredible potential to accelerate the country's development path and bring government's priorities in reach. As we create a people-centred, inclusive information society, we turn the digital divide into digital opportunity.”

In an interview with ITWeb last week, Communications Minister Roy Padayachie said the department wants to intensify its call for people to take advantage of connectivity.
The DOC has given the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA) a target of establishing 400 ICT access centres in under-serviced areas by 2015. “This ideally means that the agency will have to establish at least 100 centres per annum.” Padayachie said there will be a review of USAASA since there's an opportunity to transform the institution.

“USAASA has a mandate to provide universal service and access, especially in areas where the market failure has been persistent. This also means that the entity will be charged to support efforts to deliver broadband access in rural areas in line with the broadband policy,” said Bapela.

The DOC is, together with the department and institutions of higher education, revising the ICT curriculum to ensure graduates have the relevant qualifications to meet the needs of the country and the economy.

The partnership is also working to establish a dedicated higher education institution, purely for provisioning ICT, or with greater curriculum delivery on ICT.“At the turn of this financial year, we will provide progress reports on this matter to the minister, who is already in discussions with his counterparts in higher education and training.” 

The e-skills programme will focus on implementing e-skills training programmes, developing and implementing an e-skills awareness campaign, expanding the ICT career expo, expanding the network of universities and Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, and implementing e-skills training for 1 100 youth and unemployed graduates, says the DOC.

It has memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with five universities in Gauteng, Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KZN. MOUs are also being initiated with Limpopo and North West.

“Work has been commenced with 20 FET colleges across all provinces to conduct proprietary IT training, and teachers were also being trained in embedded software and multimedia.”

At a parliamentary portfolio committee meeting last month, in which the DOC presented its 2011/12 budget and plans, former acting director-general Harold Wesso said the training of lecturers at FET colleges was a major challenge for the department.

To exemplify this problem, the department says it developed a multimedia qualification for FET colleges, but the DOC finds it very difficult to get lecturers to be trained in multimedia.

Committee members questioned why the e-skills project was being implemented in colleges and not in schools, so learners could be educated about e-skills at an early age.

Bapela said ICT is a transversal tool for interacting at every major societal activity, and government has the responsibility to enact laws and regulations to protect its citizens from any possible threat.

“The advent of the Internet and new information and communication technologies didn't alert us to the possible threat of cyber crime.” He said work has begun on a comprehensive cyber security policy framework for the country, which will be finalised in the course of the financial year.

The deputy minister said the ICT sector is not performing well in meeting the 2% target of employing persons with disabilities.“Building an inclusive information society also calls upon the ICT sector to ensure usage of sign language, subtitles and close caption in service provision, and [we] wish to urge all broadcasters to maintain the service.”

He said the Independent Communications Authority of SA must urge licensees to apply universal design principles to achieve access to communications by persons with disabilities. “We need to develop assistive technological devices and ensure they are accessible to persons with disabilities, especially in rural and urban poor settlements.”