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Knowledge grazing must change way we educate

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The information revolution has shifted learning away from ordered hierarchies toward a much messier and self-directed learning paradigm. But has this disrupted education yet? ANGELA SCHAERER, Teacher Engagement Lead for Microsoft SA takes a look.

Look at the world we live in – the ways in which we access information has changed beyond all measure. If I think back to those awful events of September 11, 2001, we watched the unfolding drama on news channels, morbidly glued to our TV sets as the tragic events of that awful day unfolded across our screens. Fast forward a few short years to 2009 and we watched Captain Sullenberger land his Boeing 737 on the Hudson River on our screens, but the size had dramatically decreased.

These events were brought to the world first, not by 24-hour news channels, but by Twitter and YouTube, and we watched the first reports not on our TV screens but on our smart mobile devices. Of course the TV stations quickly caught up, but the story broke across social media first. And that’s the way it is now. We are used to hearing or reading about the big news stories of the day on Twitter rather than the morning papers or the TV. All the media businesses, be they television or newspaper have Twitter accounts. The Chinese government first learned about the 2008 Szechuan earthquake from Twitter rather than its own news agency. And remember the 2012 Arab spring when revolution raced across a continent broke via images from mobile phones and live conversations on social media?

‘Digital information can be altered, mashed, changed or trashed in minutes’

Our world is evolving. New ideas spread the whole way around the world in less than 24 hours. That’s the power of the YouTube video clip! It’s even quicker on Twitter.

Social media is global and ubiquitous. And today, in the middle of the second decade of this 21st century information age, we are now all reporters, sharing, creating, changing and critiquing the news as it happens.

This is evolution, but not as we’ve previously understood the word. Now the term is used to describe changes that occur much more rapidly than Darwin could ever have dreamed about. Digital information can be altered, mashed, changed or even trashed in minutes, in ways previously impossible. Digital textbooks will rarely be out of date in the way their printed versions are. And it seems our brains might be changing as well. Brain plasticity is a well-documented phenomenon.

Some people have written about the possible change in the way our brains have been made to work differently over the past few years, as information arrives at our consciousness via short, sharp simultaneous bursts. And media changes have come hand in hand with the ways in which we consume them. The biggest box-office successes nowadays all rely on the “flash, bang, wallop” effect. It seems we need instant gratification and fast-paced action full of dazzling special effects and noise which appear to trump the great narratives and plot lines of the past. Neural pathways do change. But is this change not to be embraced? After all, it’s how the brains of most of our learners work. In fact, their brains probably know no other way of working. The world has changed, and there is no going back.

‘It’s not what you know but what you do with what you know’

All educators need to do is set the parameters, then work individually with students, helping, providing advice, and yes, even teaching them that it’s not just OK to recycle and mash up knowledge. The real goal is to reboot it, make it work, and truly own it. By this I mean evaluating what is discovered and commenting on how relevant it might be to the project, benchmarking it against the set parameters.

The days of old-style factual regurgitation are long gone, left behind by the post-industrial information age. We should be in the business of helping learners to become consummate knowledge rebooters and problem-seekers. It’s not what you know, but how you use it and how you figure it can address global challenges. Bloom’s hierarchical, level-upon-level paradigm of learning is well and truly disrupted by this knowledge-grazing paradigm.

Educational institutions and governments all around the world are latching on to this knowledge grazing and are making their learning resources freely available online at an incredibly rapid rate. Some of these courses, known as Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs, attract thousands of eager learners to each course, and many thousands more graze on these fantastic learning artefacts, using, recycling, mashing and rebooting them.

And so this self-directed learning leads to increased confidence to mess about with what we discover. John Seely-Brown calls it “Tinkering”. He believes that this tinkering brings thought and action together in a very magical way. It’s what we do when things won’t work and we get over the fear of getting it wrong. If we get in there and tinker – to try and sort it out – we generally manage to get things going. And yes, this is how our kids play computer games: where failure is just one step on the way to really powerful learning.

This “getting things going” strikes right to the heart of what learning really means. We learn when we engage with whatever we discover. It’s our level of engagement which leads to depth of retention and, therefore, true learning. The world-wide education establishment is waking up to this new paradigm. It can’t come a moment too soon.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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