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Tablets and cloud can transform education in SA

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Local schools are struggling with the high costs of textbooks, a shortage of teachers in key subjects, and difficulties in funding IT infrastructure. However, technology continues to offer some compelling answers to these challenges, writes ERNST WITTMANN, Regional Manager for Southern Africa at Alcatel.

South African schools and universities are struggling with the high costs of textbooks and other educational materials, a shortage of teachers in key subjects like maths and science, and difficulties in funding IT infrastructure. However, technology continues to offer some compelling answers to these challenges.

A combination of falling data connectivity prices, more widespread fibre and 3G/4G/LTE networks, and affordable, reliable tablet computers means that schools and tertiary institutions can start tapping into the cloud for learning materials. Here are a few reasons education is likely to head for the cloud in the years to come.

1. No more IT support headaches

One of the biggest reasons technology has stumbled in South African schools is a lack of IT skills at schools to install software, manage servers and maintain networks. But with the cloud, students will just need a device with a modern web browser and a decent Internet connection to access the latest learning materials from the cloud.

2. A world of resources available online

Textbooks are expensive and so are many traditional software packages aimed at schools, teachers and students. The cloud changes the economics by offering resources for a low monthly subscription fee or even for free.

This includes school management and administration systems, tools for teachers, productivity software (like Dropbox and Gmail) and learning software (like interactive maths or language software for schoolchildren).

From maths to physics, English to biology, schoolchildren have a wide range of content at their fingertips through mobile apps or online services.

3. Less upfront IT investment

Teachers and principals know that schoolchildren will need to be computer-literate to succeed in the information economy. But the costs of installing a computer lab with a network and server infrastructure are prohibitive; what’s more, expensive IT infrastructure is a target for thieves.

With the cloud, the school simply needs to be in an area with good mobile broadband coverage or to install fibre and Wi-Fi access points.

Students can access cloud applications from a tablet computer that could cost just a couple of thousand rands, greatly reducing the upfront cost of creating a high-tech learning environment.

4. Schoolwork on demand

One of the biggest benefits of the cloud is that it enables the world to become the classroom. Students and learners can access content wherever they are, including textbooks, coursework, tests, videos and other materials their teachers put online. Whether they are sick at home or at school, schoolchildren are still able to access the learning resources they need.

The cloud can also encourage independent learning, allowing students to learn at their own pace. Advanced students can challenge themselves with more difficult work; meanwhile, a child that is struggling with a maths problem can revise and revisit the materials in his or her own time.

5. Better classroom collaboration

Of course, technology isn’t just about working independently. It can also facilitate collaboration, even helping schoolchildren and students prepare for how people work together in today’s business world.  For example, learners can work together on essays in Google Apps or reach out to friends on Slack for help with an algebra problem. They can even collaborate with children and teachers on the other side of the world.

Taking the cloud to the classroom

Tablets, as flexible and functional media consumption and creation devices, are arguably the most natural way to give learners access to the cloud’s learning resources. They’re cost-effective (especially entry-level Android-based models), offer decent battery life, and are easy to support from an IT perspective.

In addition, tablets are lighter and more portable than notebooks, yet offer larger screens than smartphones. Another benefit is that tablets offer schoolchildren a range of learning tools in one place. They can record the classroom session for later review, use calculators and other tools, and do so much more on one interface.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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