Address by the Minister of Education, Prof Kader Asmal

Director of Ceremonies,
Honored guests from abroad and South Africa,
And, most important: teachers and students

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am informed that there are about 700 teachers present at this conference. In view of recent controversies – including on call-in programmes on the radio – over my remarks about the profession, I have arranged with my bodyguards for a supply of suitable protective equipment in case of need against the odd sling and arrow that might continue to be hurled my way. Seriously, though, it is a very great pleasure to be among you all, and I look forward to an evening of warm and friendly interaction.

Thank you, indeed, for inviting me to address this very important conference, focusing as it does on the practical implementation of educational technology in schools. To be here on the premises of a school that has, without doubt, covered itself with academic and other distinction - a school which still resounds to the names of founding figures such as Noel Taylor and John Gibbon - is a double pleasure for me.

In this setting of disciplined, proven and successful learning, I want to share a vignette of the mind with you:

"The eyes of the school children glisten with anticipation. Their fingers arch lightly over their computer terminals, waiting to tap out solutions to ever more difficult problems appearing on the screen before them."

Such concentration and receptiveness would thrill any schoolteacher. Where do you think these particular children are located?

In New York? In Ireland? In Paris? In Cape Town’s elitist schools in the leafiest suburbs? Yes, maybe. But these children can, equally, be found playing video games on a well-thumped and rickety computer in a neighbourhood shop.

Why is this picture so precious to me? These children know – unlike a non-computerised upper-middle-aged codger like me - exactly which key to press to let the figure on the screen jump over obstacles; they work out strategies to overcome the obstacles of this screen; and then, with anticipation, they look at the score and change to the next screen. Can you feel the excitement grow? There is a more complex problem to solve and the group must apply more skills to solve the next problem. The whole group is participating, they assist, give advice, suggest solutions and together rejoice in another obstacle overcome …

In the cities and increasingly in the townships and even in rural areas, school children have grown up immersed in a world of computers and other information technologies. They play video games; they listen to music on digital compact disks; they help their families programme the computerized controls of videocassette players. They order educational and other manuals from abroad, and even pay for them with their parents’ credit card numbers, if they dare. They turn up in hordes on a recent Saturday morning at the usually grimy Culemborg railway goods yards transformed into a Computer Fair. There they eclipse their elders as they play computer games, do full-colour printing, access the information storehouse of the whole world - all on that intriguing little screen that has changed their and our world.

They are unique in that that are the most keyboard-adept generation in history. They live in a world obsessed by cursors, screens, files, editing, moving, increasing or reducing fonts, viewing, inserting, formatting, finding tools for short cuts, opening windows, and asking for help. They are the Bill Gates generation – a generation with more access to facts and figures than any other. But there is a downside.

They know all about information, but still have to learn much about knowledge.

Many of this generation eschew books, yet the world cannot do without books. In fact, computers print marvellous books; and books give a permanent record which defies any audit trail in a computer. Books are, in stark contrast to the narcissistic sense of privacy that computers force on participants, a communal activity.

It is striking that, in the computer age, the nerd has turned into hero, complete with two fountain pens in pocket and ill-fitting trousers. This is vastly better than the hulk as hero, or beefcake or cheesecake as role model, but it is an interesting phenomenon, and speaks of the power of the computer age. And yet that age can have meaning for us only if it helps to unlock the mysteries of our world, if it leads to genuine knowledge and if it nurtures values such as sound judgment and civic responsibility.

Our world has changed, and we must change with it, but we must make computers work for us and our intellect and our happiness. They are our servants, not our masters. And the super beings who know everything about computers, the technicians who are whistled up to fix things when the cursor disappears, the screen freezes or our winged words disappear into the Bermuda Triangle, these super beings, these program managers, are there to serve us, not the other way around.

And what is happening in our schools? How does this brand new, intriguing world relate to the school?

I can see two gaps – the one we all know, and we all try to address – the gap between the haves and the have nots. When looking at South Africa with the legacy of apartheid still evident in many areas, children are playing video games, programming video cassette players while others are looking into the future with little hope of surviving.

But that is not what I want to address tonight.

A more worrying gap for me is the technology gap between schools and the rest of the world, the world outside the classroom. Whether we like it or not, the increasing pervasiveness and vitality of technology are changing the expectations of our children and their worldview.

How wide is this gap? We have automated teller machines, computer integrated manufacturing, computerised reservation systems, computer aided college and university registration, and children sitting in schools and the focus of their activities is rote learning, obedience and discipline.

And outside the classroom are the global marketplace and communication/entertainment industries driving the evolution of high performance computing and communications. It claims to deliver improved quality of life, electronic health and life-long learning services to all. Parallel to this revolution, education and training are getting a far bigger clientele to serve in the life-long learning paradigm. Where does this lead us? Traditional instructional systems and methods need to change, with technology playing an increasingly important role.

President Mandela, in his message to the African Telekom 98 Exhibition and Forum, stated: "We strongly believe that better telecommunications will enhance our ability to deliver improved quality of life, electronic health and learning services to all in the continent, especially to previous disadvantaged areas. It opens up great opportunities to train and equip our people with skills necessary to improve our ability to innovate." Students who graduate in the next few years will go to work in businesses that use the global communication system. If they don’t know how to use it, they will be at a severe disadvantage.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is of utmost importance to bring reality into classrooms, to make our classrooms the place where we prepare children for the outside world. Our classrooms must be responsive to the needs of society and the economy.

On 25 June 1999, President Thabo Mbeki in his inaugural speech in Parliament said that education and training must constitute the decisive drivers to produce an educated and skilled population. For this to happen we must bridge the gap between the world and the classroom.

How are we going to do this? Must I announce that by 2005 all schools will be equipped with computers? Will this make any difference?

The answer is – NO. The experts have found that, although progress in the computer age has been encouraging, the gap between the presence of technology in schools and its effective use is still too wide. So we must focus attention on the use of technology in schools and the impact on student performance.

In my "Call to Action", released on 27 September 1999, I outlined a nine-point priority programme. I am very pleased to see that this was also included in your programme. The Centre for Educational Technology and Distance Education focused on the importance of infrastructure in schools. But even more important and more significant is the role of the teachers. As I outlined in priority 5, we must develop the professional quality of our teaching force to face the challenges of the 21st century. I quote one part from priority 5: "….teachers at their best are vital agents of change in our schools and communities".

I am delighted tonight to stand in front of an audience of mainly teachers. From the presentations of this conference by teachers I want to recognise the outstanding work you are doing – to bridge the technology gap. But what is even more encouraging is the way you are willing to share your experience and expertise with other teachers.

We can put technology in classrooms but without committed, trained teachers, this technology will be of no value. You are in a privileged situation to be exposed and trained to use technology effectively in classrooms. But from now on, the responsibility lies with each and every one here tonight, to take this training, information and knowledge you have acquired here, and apply it in your classroom situation. But not only there, but to spread the gospel of how to use technology and give others also this wonderful opportunity to share in the excitement and wonderful world that was opened here for you.

Remember - "TIRISANO: Working together. That is our motto at Education. We must work together to build a South African Education and Training System for the 21st Century."

Experts have long recognised that educating learners includes more than classroom learning. In today's society, education extends beyond school walls and requires co-operation among schools, teachers, parents, health care, and other service providers. Computer and communications technologies, from simple e-mail capabilities to complex service referrals, provide convenient and effective avenues to bolster co-operative efforts necessary to meet the unique needs of a diverse learner population.

The bottom line is clear: technology, applied well, can enhance and reinvigorate education, making schools richer and more exciting interactive communities of learning for students and teachers alike. We must do more than put technology in schools; we must empower teachers to use it effectively and share what we have learned.

I can see that this conference is helpful and that you will find support, inspiration, and great ideas that you can put to work in your school or institution. We also hope it prompts decisive action to empower teachers to take advantage of technology as a tool to improve education and student performance – to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world outside.

Let us go back to that group of children and the rickety machine in the local shop. We as teachers have a responsibility to get the eyes of the children to glisten again – in the school, in the classroom. We have the responsibility in our hands to make schooling and learning exciting again. Technology is available, the children are waiting. We must work creatively around obstacles like lack of resources, lack of time etc. We are the biggest obstacle to our own creativeness. We must bridge the gap. And I must say what I have witnessed here today says - IT IS POSSIBLE!

I want to thank everybody involved in the conference for creating an experience for teachers and educators and I want to congratulate the Western Cape Schools Network and SchoolNet SA for organising this event. I hope that I can be part of the next conference too.

Thank you.

Speech by Prof Kader Asmal, MP, Minister of Education, at dinner at the Millennium Minds Educational Computing Conference on 30 September 1999 at 19h00 at Westerford High School, Cape Town.