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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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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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