South Africa strike sends students beyond the classroom to learn

South Africa's strike by teachers has prompted students to fall behind in preparations for exams. They're turning to mobile phone programs to catch up.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters
A striking South African public service worker marches through the streets of Cape Town, August 26, 2010.The strike by 1.3 million state workers over higher wages has led to school closures, denied treatment at hospitals and put pressure on the ruling African National Congress to reach a deal quickly to limit damage to Africa's largest economy

Turn on your cellphone and the lesson will begin.

That's the unusual instruction given to thousands of school children in South Africa who have turned to mobile handsets to plug gaps in their math curriculum after a nationwide strike by teachers.

The bitter three-week strike by teachers and other civil servants over pay ended three weeks ago. However, students have protested across the country, complaining they did not have enough time to prepare for exams.

An estimated 12,000 students are downloading study materials from the popular mobile phone platform and messaging service MXit to bolster their chances of graduating in a month's time.

The initiative was devised by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a government-backed body which carries out scientific and technological development. Students can download material from the site as well as exchange information and messages with tutors.

The CSIR's Laurie Butgereit said it was the ideal platform to help students outside of lesson hours.

"MXit is cheap and efficient. It is a perfect opportunity for South Africa to roll up its sleeves and help final year students," she said. "Dr. Math is currently helping 12,000 learners on MXit, but we could be helping so many more if we had additional volunteer tutors."

She said more than 1,000 MXit messages could be sent for as little as 15 US cents or 1 rand in South Africa, making it cost effective to download the Dr. Math program.

The unusual education method was supported by Brahm Fleisch, an associate professor in the division of education leadership and policy studies at Wits School of Education. He said tutors could be too cautious in using new technology, but sometimes with good reason.

He said, "I can see this being a good tool for teaching but more research needs to be done to gauge its effectiveness. Other industries, like banking, have embraced the cellphone so why not education?

"I don't think anything will replace the face-to-face interaction of a tutor and a student, but that's not to say this kind of innovation cannot be utilized. Teachers have used technology before like videos, but it was found that it wasn't always an effective teaching mechanism and was largely abandoned."

More than 100 Dr. Math volunteer tutors have been screened and registered to work on the project. Ishmail Makitla, a master's student in information technology, is among the tutors.

"It is a great experience to chat with students and to help them with their problems," he said.

Mrs. Butgereit said she got the idea for the initiative after helping her son and some friends with their maths homework using MXit.

She added, "We've had complaints from students saying that the only bad thing about Dr. Math is that it can't help you cheat."

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