FRANS KALP (L) AND JJ DU PLESSIS VAN RENSBURG (R)

Making the classroom reality in Africa has been no easy task, but Ligbron Academy of Technology has established a model that can be replicated across the country.

As the world moves towards an increased focus on computing and the internet, the subjects of maths and science take a more central role in educating future generations. With a national shortage of teachers specialising in these areas, finding a way to impart that knowledge to as wide a base of learners as possible can only be a good thing.

With this in mind, in the 1990s, a small team of educators from Ligbron Technology Academy in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, started looking at ways to transmit maths classes to local independent state schools via satellite.

The system has evolved significantly since those early days, says Ligbron’s headmaster JJ du Plessis van Rensburg. Today, SMART interactive whiteboards, flatscreen monitors and two-way video cameras enable dialogue and interactivity between the teacher and the dispersed classes of students.

The SMART interactive whiteboard enables users  at two or more locations to connect and collaborate, with both adding input to the board. With the Ligbron team having already established the satellite links to transmit lessons, Frans Kalp, one of Ligbron’s teachers, saw SMART interactive whiteboards at an international technology conference and realised the potential they offered. These devices were primarily designed for internet-rich markets, and with connectivity not being widely available in the Ermelo schools, Kalp set about customising the SMART boards system to use line-of-sight radio wave signals to connect to each other. Of course, the reality of internet connectivity being sparse in a lot of rural South Africa, and indeed Africa, means this idea has much that can be replicated.


TIPS FOR INNOVATION 

Ligbron Technology Academy’s headmaster JJ du Plessis van Rensburg gives his advice on making an innovative idea a reality.

“You have to be driven to succeed. I usually start with a dream and get people to start believing in the dream. Once you’ve fulfilled the first dream, success breeds success.

“We started a student centre, which cost R3 million. It was initially a dream, we started building and it came true. People got involved once we’d started. You have to show that it’s possible. Don’t just look at the problem, look at the solution too,” he says.

“Be genuine and be relevant. You have to interact with people who the solution is aimed at and those who can help make the idea a reality, and, most importantly, you have to give back to the people.”

Having put in some of their own money to get the project started, Du Plessis van Rensburg and Kalp explored funding options, and found their way to Dr Hardus Maritz, Project Manager and Chief Education Specialist at the Department of Education, Mpumalanga. Maritz helped fund the project with departmental money initially.

Over the years, Sonae Novobord, Xstrata Coal, ELB Equipment Limited, Hermann Ohlthaver Trust, Edit Microsystems, ABSA and Eqstra Holdings all helped Ligbron to cover costs, which were running into hundreds of thousands of rands. The cost to set up an outfield class is typically around R250 000. This figure not only includes the hardware and software to enable classes to receive the information, but also the security elements, such as fitting burglar bars and an alarm. “Once it’s set up,” says Du Plessis van Rensburg, “the running and maintenance costs are low.”

While the investment costs have been significant, the system means that the lessons of Ligbron’s three teachers (Lenie van Zyl, maths; Magdeli Bosman, science; and Frankie Kirk, maths literature) can now reach hundreds of Grade 12 learners across six schools.

Ligbron’s model also enables learners to not just access ‘live’ lessons, but a large central server with recorded classes. So if a student misses a lesson, they are able to catch up.

The programme also enables learners to have dedicated revision sessions during the September holidays. “All the learners sit for six days, and we are able to transmit a whole year’s worth of lessons,” says Kalp.

“WE KNOW THAT GOVERNMENT HAS TAKEN NOTICE OF THE IDEA IN NATIONAL PARLIAMENT, AND HAS DISCUSSED IT, AND DECIDED IT MUST BE ROLLED OUT”  -JJ DUPLESSIS VAN RENSBURG

External assessment
In its first two years of operation, the project was audited by the University of Pretoria. “We were criticised on some aspects, which helped us improve the system,” says Du Plessis van Rensburg. “At the end of the audit, the report said our model is the way the provinces in South Africa must go in order to meet the growing knowledge gap of maths and science.

“We know that government has taken notice of the idea in national parliament, and has discussed it, and decided it must be rolled out. We know it will happen eventually, probably with a mix of public and private funding,” he says.

In fact, Ligbron’s model is already being duplicated to varying degrees elsewhere in South Africa and in the near future will reach some African countries and further overseas. In total, the system is planned to be rolled out in 25 municipalities, including educational development centres, community colleges and tertiary colleges. Ligbron has also presented to Unicef in Liberia.

Du Plessis van Rensburg says the immediate plan for Ligbron is to expand the curriculum to cover the subject of accounting, and move classes beyond grade 12 students. In 2013, grade 11 maths and science will also be shared between the six schools in Ermelo.

FOR MORE INFO:
Contact JJ du Plessis van Rensburg at 017 811 5906 or Frans Kalp at tegnologie@ligbron.co.za

STORY:  ADRIAN HINCHCLIFF: