Sustainable ICT Solutions for the SA Education Sector

By Garth Duncan, Managing Executive: Schools, Education and CSI at RentWorks

It’s generally accepted that education is key to South Africa’s long-term success and that in this information age, the ability to engage with ICT is critical to functioning in the work environment. ICT access promotes awareness and empowerment. Yet there remains a massive lag in terms of ICT in the education sector. Many schools can’t afford to build classrooms or install desks, let alone invest in a computer lab for their students.

While exposing learners to ICT from an early age is a major focus within the education sector, the costs have traditionally been prohibitive. Educators realise the importance of IT infrastructure and training in their schools, but are hamstrung by budget and staffing constraints.

Many South African companies have responded to the dire need for IT equipment in schools by donating their used IT equipment. Unfortunately, although this may be done with the best intentions, it rarely solves the problem. A school that can’t afford to set up a secure classroom to host the computers or may not even have electricity is not going to be able to put the equipment to good use. Even if a school does manage to get an IT lab up and running, many don’t have a qualified tutor to teach IT skills to the learners, or the support to deal with IT issues that arise.

Schools in South Africa can be divided into five categories, ranging from Quintile 1 to Quintile 5. In quintiles one to three, school fees are not charged. These schools are state sponsored and are the poorest schools in the country. Schools in quintiles four and five, however, charge their learners school fees and have access to more funds. In the latter categories, parents are also more likely to be able to support school initiatives and to assist with funding computer labs.

A sustainable means of accessing ICT infrastructure is the only way to bridge the gap between the poorest schools in the lower quintiles and those that can afford the necessary IT equipment. What the education sector needs is a long-term solution to IT needs; not corporate dumping of used equipment.

Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t room to make use of used computers. In fact, for the price of one computer lab with new equipment, a school can install three computer labs with refurbished computers.

The key is to install these labs with the necessary basic infrastructure, like electricity, desks and chairs, as well as support and maintenance infrastructure and other necessities like security, insurance and, of course, a qualified tutor. With these in place, access to ICT becomes viable as a long-term, sustainable solution.

When companies come to the point where they need to invest in new ICT equipment, they have the chance to make a sustainable contribution to the education sector in South Africa, by not only donating their equipment to a school that needs it, but entering into a programme with the school to set up the auxiliary infrastructure to ensure that their equipment is put to the best possible use.

While the majority of schools in quintiles one to three lack the capital to make any sort of upfront investment in their ICT infrastructure, many are willing to enter into a rental agreement to fund the computer labs over a period of time as they recognise the impact that ICT access has on the education of their learners.

Even schools in quintiles four and five can benefit from choosing labs fitted with used computers rather than new equipment, and making use of rental arrangements rather than purchasing equipment upfront, as this allows them to spread their funds further and manage their assets intelligently.