Over the past decade, academic institutions at all levels have begun to take advantage of digital technology to transform the learning experience for both students and educators. In the following feature, AV Integration takes a look at how Smart Classroom technology is transforming the educational landscape.

In his most recent State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted the need to introduce technology and improve the level of technology-based subjects at South African schools. “Over the next six years, we will provide every school child in South Africa with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device,” he told the country’s Parliament on 20 June.

While providing school-going children with tablets for academic purposes is, without question, a step in the right direction, it by no means takes full advantage of the wide and revolutionary opportunities that digital technology offers today’s learners. Educational institutions around the world are integrating learning technologies, such as computers, smart devises, specialised software, audience response technology, assistive listening devices, networking and audiovisual capabilities to create interactive and dynamic learning spaces, generally called Smart Classrooms.

In another approach, called the Flipped Classroom, students are provided access to recorded lectures and digital resources to view on their smart devices at home. Activities emerging from the new content, traditionally set as homework, are then carried out during class time with the teacher present. The digitally-enabled Flipped Classroom approach is gaining enormous popularity with students and teachers alike, as learners can view the material at their own pace before class and teachers can spend more time addressing individual problems and providing guidance rather than simply delivering lecture-style lessons.  

Creating a Smart Learning environment, therefore, requires a little more than a few tablets to achieve. As Samsung’s Smart Classroom initiative makes clear, a Smart Classroom can radically transform educational outcomes for children in remote and underserviced communities. However, without the electricity and internet connectivity needed to make tablets and smartboards functional, there is little point. A tablet is most effective in a classroom environment when learners are able to share what they are seeing on their displays with the teacher and vice-versa. This level of functionality requires a solid internet connection with sufficient bandwidth and abundant, cost-effective data, as well as a collaboration platform, a smartboard, and video and audio recording equipment.  Finally, and perhaps most critically, a Smart Classroom needs a teacher who has been adequately trained and who has the confidence needed to operate the available technology.

When viewed from this angle, the challenges of deploying Smart Classrooms in resource-restricted economies may seem overwhelming. It is, however, important to keep in mind that the potential benefits are well worth the investment, both in the short and long run. If South Africa hopes to become a “player in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as President Ramaphosa proposes, we need to provide our children with the same educational opportunities as their counterparts in the developed world.

“With technology, we can achieve universal access to secondary education within a single generation.”

– Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2015

Smart Classrooms open up opportunities for learners with special needs who have long been excluded from the mainstream education system, as evidenced by our case study at St Vincent’s School for the Deaf in Johannesburg. Technology in the classroom also provides an equal opportunity for learners in remote and impoverished communities to access world-class educational resources, a factor that could become a major disruptor in patterns of inequality in a very short space of time. As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka so memorably stated at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2015, “With technology, we can achieve universal access to secondary education within a single generation.”

However, it is evident that technologists need to take the initiative in educating policy-makers and educators about how to harness technology to design sustainable, cost-effective and outcomes-driven integrated technology solutions for schools and institutions of higher learning. While the opportunities to radically transform access to quality education for all have never been greater, the risks are equally as great should we falter at this critical time.