Selling tech for education

SA educators are keen to get their hands on STEM and tech tools for learners, but public schools lack skills and budget.

Despite the government’s ambitious plans to teach coding, robotics and 4IR skills to South Africa’s youth, the reality is that public schools are generally woefully under-resourced, and unlikely to be a major market for educational technologies in the foreseeable future. What does this mean for vendors looking to sell educational technologies in the local market?
Professor Jean Greyling, associate professor in the Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, believes South Africa may be overly optimistic about its ability to help the nation’s children develop the tech skills needed for the future of work.
Professor Jean Greyling, Nelson Mandela University Professor Jean Greyling, Nelson Mandela University

“The reality is that there are around 16 000 schools with no computer labs, and it costs an estimated R1 million to give one school an internet-connected lab. The costs are highest in rural schools with no underlying infrastructure. I don’t believe this money is available,” he says. “Another harsh reality is that in schools that do have computer labs, the equipment is often unused because the schools have no funding for maintenance and tech support. The constant talk about 4IR skills, coding and robotics in schools is causing anxiety among communities, teachers, parents and pupils. I have seen principals close to tears about the lack of IT facilities for their learners.”
While many schools may not have the resources to install computer labs, Greyling says potential markets exist among parents and communities anxious for their children to gain future-proof skills, and among large enterprises looking to deliver technology access to communities as part of their CSI programmes. According to the 2019 Trialogue Business in Society Handbook, 94% of companies invest in education as part of their CSI spend, with 50% of total CSI spend going to education last year. Greyling hopes to see more of this CSI budget allocated to STEM and digital skills development, to address the country’s skills gaps.
Beyond selling to CSI initiatives and resourced schools, vendors and resellers could also target parents and communities offering value-added bundles that support digital skills development, Greyling says. “Instead of just selling laptops and tablets, they could include data bundles and guidelines to a range of self-learning options available online. A lot of course material is available for free, but learners and parents are not always aware of this.”
Beyond tablets
Tablets and laptops are far from the only tools available on the market to help learners develop digital and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.
Greyling coordinates the award-winning TANKS project, which exposes learners to the basic concepts of coding without the need for computers. Using resources as limited as one teacher’s smartphone, TANKS uses puzzle pieces and an app to expose learners to coding basics and software development as a career. The project, which was developed in 2017 by NMU computing sciences student Byron Batteson, targets disadvantaged communities with the support of corporate CSI initiatives, and has already reached over 19 000 learners and inspired some of them to consider careers in IT.
Other apps, toys and devices can help teach the basics of engineering and computing.
RS Components South Africa, which distributes a broad range of electronics and components in South Africa and across Africa, fairly recently stepped up its focus on education as a market. Dewet Joubert, RS Components South Africa operations director, says the company is seeing increased interest in products that support engineering and digital skills development.
“Schools were not our primary target market – we focused on universities and the engineering and manufacturing sectors. But we have participated in education-focused trade shows recently, where we find strong interest from educators in products that develop digital skills, design-thinking and problem-solving,” he says.
These products – ranging from the lowcost Raspberry Pi computer through to 3D printers and programmable robots – deliver a ‘wow factor’ that gets educators excited, says Joubert. Unfortunately, a lack of budget and the necessary skills to guide children in using these products becomes a constraint to deploying them in the average classroom. “Some private schools invest in a range of these technologies, with many benefits for their learners. Some products may present themselves as a toy, but they encourage design and process thinking at various levels of complexity. Tools like Raspberry Pi encourage coding skills and innovation with a fairly low barrier to entry.”
CSI vs revenue
While revenue opportunities in the public education sector may be limited, stakeholders believe the IT sector should take a long-term view and make an effort to support digital and STEM skills development in schools.
“IT companies need a corporate conscience, but they also need a long-term view, since they are dependent on learners choosing IT and software development careers,” says Greyling. “Whether IT companies are selling into schools or donating technology, they also have to support HR and teacher skills development to ensure that the technology has the impact it should. And even small and mid-sized companies could have an impact if they collaborated with others in the industry to develop central access points where children can be exposed to technologies.”
RS Components agrees that IT industry stakeholders need to play a bigger role in giving under-served schools access to technologies and helping develop the skills South Africa will need in future. “We are still grappling with solutions,” says Joubert. “On the one hand, we see huge demand among schools for access to educational technologies. But there is definitely a gap between making a product available to it becoming useful at a classroom level. You need the right skills in the classroom to pick it up and run with it.”
Who should take on this role is unclear. Says Joubert: “It’s difficult, and everyone is grappling with how to address the sector. As a company, we ‘re still learning how to connect the dots, but I believe that if everyone in the sector collaborates and pools their resources, collectively, we can make a difference.”