iPads for elite schools
While many government schools are still struggling to source teaching support material, private schools are zooming ahead into the digital era.
At least one private school in Johannesburg has sent letters to parents informing them that all Grade 6 and Grade 8 pupils need to have iPad 2 tablets by July.
The Kingsmead Girls' College wants parents to fork out about R5000 each for the tablets. The school - at which annual fees range from R45000 for Grade 1 to R78000 for matrics - explained its IT strategy for the year in the letter.
A wireless network to cover most of the campus is being set up and will be running within a month. The iPad 2 "roll-out" will start in July.
Among the other Johannesburg private schools using tablet computing are Saheti, in Bedfordview, and King David, in Linksfield.
Education experts, however, caution that this development will widen the information gap between the rich and the poor.
"The rapid adoption of IT infrastructure at private schools is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots," said education psychologist Melanie Hartgill.
The Department of Education's director of electronic education, Phil Mnisi, said the government was aware of the digital divide and had produced a white paper on electronic education.
The paper outlined a strategy for introducing computers and internet connectivity to schools, Mnisi said.
However, latest figures show that only 23% of schools have internet connectivity.
Doran Isaacs, of the NGO Equal Education, said: "According to government statistics, 3600 schools don't even have electricity. It's going to take decades to take South African education into the modern world. But we should still be experimenting with tablet computing and technology in poor environments."
Hartgill said tablet use in class had to be monitored because there were both benefits and drawbacks.
One drawback was that staring at a computer screen could affect a child's ability to read because eyes need to move uninterruptedly from left to right.
She said eyes tended to move slowly when one stared at a computer screen.
Because of this, "more and more students need glasses in the classroom to help them make the adjustment from looking at a book near them and then immediately looking further away towards the classroom board".
Children might not develop sufficient listening skills because they might find interactive computer programmes more interesting than listening to a teacher's voice.
Both Hartgill and IT expert Arthur Goldstuck advocate the correct use of technology.
"iPads and computers are helpful for children who have severe handwriting problems because typing allows them to keep up with the pace of work in class," said Hartgill.
Goldstuck said South African schools were learning fast from the growing international knowledge on the use of tablets.
Kingsmead College IT technical manager Michael-John Bam said schools today were like an "in-flight experience", with pupils having to sit still, stare straight ahead and turn off all electronic devices.
"Private schools are moving towards real-life experiences, in which students are constantly connected to the internet, equivalent to passengers switching on their cellphones when they land," he said.
Bam's colleague, IT manager Lora Foot, said they had chosen to use Apple products because of the company's extensive involvement in education.
Multiple applications are being designed specifically for the South African curriculum to enhance pupils' learning experience.
Apple last weekend launched an iBooks application allowing teachers to make digital text books using their notes and include movie clips, photographs and interactive quizzes.
One of the useful programmes available is Mathletics, a game that allows pupils to solve maths problems and compete with fellow students internationally.
Apple is also digitising all school textbooks in South Africa. This means that pupils will access books from their tablets.
"We are moving away from killing trees," said Foot.
Gill Wolters, IT manager at Bishops Preparatory School in Cape Town, said computers increased interactivity and made it easier for pupils to participate in class.
"It adds another dimension to learning. You have still got teachers driving the lessons."
"Teachers have access to up-to-date information instantly to answer any question and pupils studying volcanos can, for example, watch a video clip of a volcano erupting."
Reddam House registrar Rob Quayle said the school had not yet introduced tablet computing in classrooms, but added that it was only a matter of time before it moved in that direction.
Foot said pupils' calendars, timetables, lessons and homework would eventuallybe integrated into one device as this was how people operated in real life.
She said both the physical safety of the pupils and internet security were carefully considered when planning the i-Pad strategy.
The focus is on "responsible use".
All pupils would access the internet from the school's network. There was also a firewall to prevent them accessing inappropriate sites and filter certain words.
Foot said the school "can't eradicate the dangers [of pornography or internet stalking] but we have provided training to learners to warn them about cyber bullying and the dangers of the internet".
The school also provided lockers for safe storage of valuables, she said.