On 23rd July, 2015, a seemingly calm afternoon in Tswhane was interrupted by a protesting army of students marching through the streets. They were determined to deliver a memorandum of understanding to staff at the Department of Basic Education. Some of the students had come willingly. Others, it would be appear, were forced to participate in the march by members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS).  I watched the city centre descend into chaos from a vantage point on the 12th floor of a nearby building.  I wondered what had stirred this reaction. There are many grievances about the education system that our youth can very justifiably question; ranging from delayed delivery of textbooks to deplorable sanitation conditions. Not for a moment did I think that their demands were about tablets; the computer kind that is. COSAS members were livid at what they viewed to be the unfair distribution of tablets across the Gauteng province. Instead of ‘giving’ tablets to some schools, and not to others, COSAS wanted the department to guarantee that all students be provided with technological resources. To quote COSAS general secretary Khulekani Skosana: “We must get tablets just like Chinese students”.

I’d like to unpack this story on many fronts, but let’s begin by exploring the landscape. A number of provinces are embracing ‘paperless education’ as a way to support other resource deficits in the education system and to improve on curriculum delivery. In the Western Cape, the Khanya project was launched to support teaching and learning, with funds raised through public/private partnerships. The distribution of laptops and tablets to over 300 schools in predominantly township and rural schools in Gauteng was what led to the spate of recent protests and looting of shops in the country’s capital.  Students from across the province were transported to the July event where the Gauteng MEC launched the project roll-out. Like an audience on the Oprah show, the mesmerised crowd of students erupted with delight when they were also informed by the MEC that the laptops would have free and unlimited data bundles between 5am and 9pm. It’s no wonder that the ‘have nots’ took to the streets.

Criticism of these projects is mainly targeted at their cost, which runs into the billions. There are also questions about what support teachers are receiving to ensure that they effectively integrate tablets, laptops and LED screens into their teaching programmes. We cannot ignore the possibility that teachers might view these devices as replacement of, rather than a supplement to teaching. Maintenance and security concerns when expensive equipment is stored in schools cannot be overlooked. However, supporters of digital initiatives in schools take on a different view. Children are more engaged in the learning process and educational outcomes can even improve when digital devices are used correctly. Providing schools in disadvantaged areas with tablets is viewed, by some, as a means to bridge the inequality gap because of their widespread availability in better-resourced schools.

The bottom line is that teaching and learning is about conveying a message to children in a systematic way, and in a safe, and adequately resourced environment. Any technological investment needs to support these fundamental objectives. Technology should not be a distraction. And overinvestment in digital classrooms, might not necessarily lead to better educational outcomes.

Speaking of fundamentals, I cannot close without responding to the point made by the COSAS secretary general about Chinese students and their towers of tablets. In her award-winning book, “The Smartest Kids in the World”, author Amanda Ripley goes on a quest to find out why some education systems are thriving and others aren’t. The book is worth a read for a number of reasons, but I’m reminded of her discussion about why she thinks that America is overspending on technology. She suggests to readers that America’s romance with digital classrooms has not necessarily paid off. America is, at best, in the middle of most international educational rankings. Yet it spends considerably more than other industrialised countries on technology for schools. Education superpowers like Korea, have relatively modest classrooms. She notes that invariably, education systems that have transformed over the decades had a few key ingredients in common: teachers and teaching were prioritised, parents participated actively in schools and educational quality was a national priority. So before leaping on board the tech bandwagon, perhaps we should first focus on ensuring that schools have suitable infrastructure and essential resources, such as proper sanitation, nutrition, desks, chairs, and most importantly, good teachers. Let us keep reminding ourselves that our ultimate goal is that our children can go to schools where they can fulfil their potential. With or without the tablets.

Tia Linda Zuze is a Senior Research Specialist in the Education and Skills Development Research Programme of the HSRC.