Paperless classrooms in South Africa – inevitable or doubtful?



A new generation of learners are accessing and absorbing information in a whole new way – and it’s distinctly digital. Across the country, government and independent initiatives are providing learners with tablets to transform their learning experience. Teachers’ skills have also been upgraded to accommodate the new digital environment. But in the wake of these advancements, experts maintain digital learning can’t replace the need for pen-and-paper learning.

Leading business solutions provider, Nashua, provides technology to South African schools – and fully understands the struggle of traversing the space between conventional and digital learning.

“We’ve seen first-hand how classrooms are changing and work closely with local schools to make this process as easy as possible – understanding that pen and paper are still the backbone of the classroom. Connectivity, devices and paper-based solutions are just some of the ways we assist local schools in balancing e-learning and traditional education,” says Nashua CEO, Mark Taylor.

Technology and the brain

According to neuroscientist and author of I-Brain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Dr Gary Small, there are certain benefits to digital learning – but they come at a price. Small explains that when young children use technology, it strengthens information processing in the brain. However, face-to-face human contact skills are weakened as a result.

E-learning also offers opportunities to interact with video, images and other resources, and has proven to improve maths skills and special education. It creates flexibility of schedules and adaptation of work according to the student’s unique needs, allowing for self-paced learning – which in turn strengthens self-discipline and independence.

Digital distraction

Despite the myriad of benefits, more and more research reflects a need to stick to traditional reading methods. According to neuroscience experts at Stavanger University, there’s increasing evidence to show that information retention when reading and learning on-screen simply doesn’t measure up to paper.

Constantly reading words on a screen encourages skim reading and digital distraction – jumping around to find information, instead of following linear word patterns. This, in turn, inhibits comprehension.

“A screen fails to recreate the tactile experience of writing and reading from paper, which often allows for more in-depth understanding,” explains Marinus Bell, head of educational development department at Neuro-Link.

“Writing by hand aids cognitive development. The human brain draws on a specific circuit when reading to aid object recognition – each letter is a character. So when the brain goes through the motion of focused reading, those regions are activated, just like when we’re writing, and meaning is created,” adds Bell.

Bell maintains that even in tech-savvy classrooms, digital natives will always rely on paper to learn effectively.

Going digital is unavoidable

“Whether you’re for or against it, the reality is that digital integration is unavoidable,” says Deanne King, headmistress of St Mary’s Johannesburg.

“At our school, learners from grades six to 12 are currently learning with iPads. This certainly doesn’t replace the need for a teacher, but opens up a world of information and allows us to help our students use the web responsibly – avoiding reliance and addiction,” says King.

Paper is here to stay

Educators across South Africa are embracing the digital trend, with reservations. Marc Loon, principal of the Kairos School of Inquiry, in Emmarentia, is one of these teachers. Loon explains that tablets in the classroom are just another possible tool among a plethora of other valuable resources.

The Kairos School has a policy that allows children a maximum of 30 minutes of screen time at home – computer, iPad, TV and phone – every day, encouraging more time in the real world than the virtual one. At school, computers are only used for researching information and the use of recording software.

“Both iPads and pen-and-paper education can be equally meaningless without the knowledge to use these. The essence of a good education is the quality of the conversation between the teacher and children – and that depends largely on the expertise of the teacher,” says Loon.

Focused on local

“As classrooms begin to transform into paper-digital hybrids, there’s a need for localised solutions that serve the education system well,” concludes Taylor, “Nashua will continue to work with schools to navigate this ever-changing landscape.”

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