One of the things I am always thankful for growing up (really) at Tsogo High School is the excellent computer center they have. There I nurtured a fascination that started at home about these machines that people did things on. A realisation I had once I started with my engineering degree was the different levels of exposure students had had with them and how it also affected the attitude they had towards them. Now as computational power becomes colossal in 1970s comparisons I just wonder how the public school system in South Africa is going to deal with the digital divide. I believe its a divide and I hope other people do too.
Computer Science as a widely available high school subject
Okay here I am going to do some rough data analysis stemming from computer science information available online. First I will look at the number of participants in the first round of the South African Computer Olympiad. Last year 2009 they had 33,119 participants in the first round(Grade 9-12). Comparing this to how many learners wrote the 12th Grade exams in 2009 that is 580577 learners wrote the NSC exams. This would mean that had all the participants of the computer Olympiad being in 12th grade then only 5.7% would potentially be taking Information Technology (Computer Studies) as a subject or have had some advanced study with computers not necessarily taking the subject (Such as my brother). Even further 296659 learners took Mathematics in the 12th Grade exams in 2009. Of that it would mean that only 11% of learners would have some advance study in Computer Studies. I am being very optimistic here as the computer Olympiad is given to even students not taking the subject . There might be some skew if there were more learners taking Computer Studies than I perceive. If so write me but my goal is not to use this data to skew this argument to my opinion. A side note: to get this data I was forced to use Internet Explorer. I am still trying to wash the taste from my mouth, dammit government. From this little snippet of some stats I wish to convey the sense of scale of how student are exposed to computers as not just a simple tool but something they could build a career on. During my time as an Undergrad I was very happy that I finally got to start programming (First real language was C++)and at the same time I had to also interact with a lot of students who were simply scared and also disheartened in dealing with the challenge of programming.
What I would like to pin this on is exposure to Computer Studies in South Africa. I do not even want to start on the debate of what Higher Learning Institutions could be doing to bridge this gap, but I think by the time the learner has finished 12th grade it may be too late. So the problem should be solved way earlier in the school career. I was exposed to my first computer(IBM something something) in my 2nd grade at Morekolodi Primary school in 1993. Back then I had no idea what this meant as in the school it was part of our reading center. By the time I was in 6th grade at the Primary school they had built another computer center. High School was just bliss after that.
One thing that was missing throughout this whole experience was advanced studies. Yes learning MS Office is fun (not, after 8th grade). We could have done so much more, but it is kind of speaking from a privileged position when I think of other public schools that did not have computer labs or had them and did not use them. Thus I was happy when CCNA summer classes were availed in 2006 at Tsogo, I attended the classes then with some of the learners and I can say now I also cannot take back that experience. My brother has taken part in every Summer program since the beginning and he has become skilled with Cisco Networking. Can check out some pictures from the program at one of the facilitators blogs, Vincix Blog. I am not saying everyone should take high school Cisco classes but I think for the learners who had access to a little more than just the normal computer studies learn to appreciate the bigger role of computing just like the campaigns to make Physical Science and Mathematics subjects more tangible by showing their applicability in our world, computer studies also needs that. We need to have more up and coming IT professionals who will be the face of the digital army taking South Africa to the next level of Information Technology development and also research.
Entering higher education, Mind the Gap
Now then why all this worry about computer studies, why not computer literacy in general. Well that is also worrisome. First lets set the basis of what is Computer Literacy? Is it just knowing how to use windows and Microsoft Office? Well that cannot be the case anymore especially with the explosion of the internet as a every day tool.
To use a quote from Gender Differences in Computer Literacy Level Among Undergraduate Students in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia taken from Computer skills of first-year students at a South African university Computer Literacy is:
"an understanding of computer characteristics, capabilities and applications, as well as an ability to implement this knowledge in the skillful, productive use of computer applications suitable to individual roles in society"
A recent study (2009, really recent, I actually just quoted from it above) analysed the results of computer literacy tests at the University of Cape Town. The result showed that about 16% of all first year student needed computer training and of that 16%, 81% were African students. African student only made up 33% of the the testing group and 40% of the 33% needed training. Looking at this most know and recognise that there already is a gap between public schools in rural areas, having a second gap that is created by the digital divide will further exasperate this problem. University students are required to master computer use in order to carry through their studies. This means knowing how to use applications and do research in order to seek out the information required. I at the moment cannot imagine a time without Wikipedia even though one should never ever ever reference a Wikipedia article in an academic paper (I do Wikipedia vandalism classification in my spare time). An interesting statistic is that South Africa accounts for about 26 million Wikipedia page views per month that come from about 5 million users which is about less than 10% of the total population, Source. The students of entering our institutions today should be able to take advantage of all of this ease of access to information(Even though of high internet costs in SA, Mobile internet FTW!) and more and more high quality free applications. Now the interesting question to answer is how much this actually impacts the success rates of students especially in computer intensive degrees. Who will answer this nagging question? Well the success rates of African students in comparison to White students in engineering degrees are already low.
From Literacy to Science
So I am an electrical engineering graduate and I recognise the importance of the science behind computing and the potential impact they have on societies and economies. To quote a friend, "Look, everything is algorithms!" and I am slowly staring to accept that the whole world runs on algorithms, whether we would like to admit it or not. The current problems that face the digital world are numerous and interesting. The solutions will come from everywhere, what we as a nation also want is to find ways to come up with some solutions to these problems that might benefit us or apply some of the solutions out there to our settings. We need the computer scientists, the engineers and the other professions that understand and appreciate the science behind computing. We need to get the learners excited about this in school not while they are frustrated in University. There is a learning curve to these things but hitting that curve when your are worried that your parents have paid a lot of money for you to attend university and now you don't understand what the hell is going may be the wrong time for the simple curves to come in and frustrate you. I would like in the not so distant future to work with people who are interested in addressing this problem, especially in the public school and rural South Africa. I have talked to friends who are interested and also I am looking for like minded young professionals and academics who would like to do just more than put money up for some program but to join in using our talents in coming up with innovative ways to get the science out there to even the most remote parts of South Africa. We would also want to make Neil Turok's dream of finding the next Einstein in Africa true.
Wait wait wait, what about the mobile? Yes what about the mobile? Mobile computing is interesting in Africa in general. It has brought access to the internet using a cheaper medium. I would believe the pickup of the mobile internet is large especially in young people judging from the use of services such as Facebook, Twitter and that dreaded Mxit (not a fan, maybe I am too old). As I had earlier stated earlier about Wikipedia usage stats, it would also be interesting to know how many people access Wikipedia via their mobiles in South Africa. I used to use it a lot via my phone while at Wits University. Yes its not a big display, but it gave me easy access to information when I needed it. It is stated that South Africa has 15 million mobile internet users. It gets blurry when we try to marry the 5 million South African Wikipedia users and the 15 million mobile internet users. So if I make an optimistiv estimate that 1 million of the mobile users actually access Wikipedia on their phones we still have a large gap. Is it fair that I am using Wikipedia as a benchmark? Well I used another estimate that about 1.58 million South Africans access Facebook via their phone which is half of the total amount of Facebook users in South Africa. Google is also number one in South Africa in terms of most accessed website (Well of course its a search engine), but Facebook is number two, Wikipedia is number 6 according to Alexa. So I would think it Wikipedia would be significant especially for addressing information access in terms of knowledge search.
So at the end of it we have a unique situation where we do not have a lot of internet users in South Africa. Worse still is that this is partly caused by access to computers and infrastructure costs. Learners especially in the public schools do not have access to adequate resources and even if they do, do they have adequate teachers and also access to the internet. Is anyone working on getting them to move to information sources via their phones or will this be reserved just for Facebook and Mxit (Agghhhh!)? Where will our computer scientists come from? Where will our engineers come from? Where will our digital artists come from? Where will our teachers come from? Well, we will need to answer these questions and more as we deal with competing in the global market. One thing I have come to accept, the solutions will not come from our government, they will come from citizens like me and you. What have you done today to spread the word about the world of computing?