Did somebody say 'Renaissance in Education'?

In the past two weeks, as is often the case after an Apple launch, the geek world splits in two.  Some of us were downloading E.O. Wilson‘s “œLife on Earth“ textbook and showing it to everyone regardless of his or her interest in technology or for that matter, Biology. Fanboys became convinced that Apple was now set to revolutionize yet another sector, education, with the launch of “œTextbooks“ in the iBook store. Non-fanboys, on the other hand were pre-occupied blogging about the limitations of 4 Gb textbooks or the draconian clauses built into the iBooks Author contract. In the midst of this debate however, one institution appears to have already put its money where its mouth is and turn the tertiary education sector on its head by revolutionizing the role of the tablet computer in education. This is refreshingly not another silicon valley start up but PC Training and Business College, a local South African educational institution.

Inspired by the launch and planned role to be played by the Aakash Tablet in the Indian Government‘s plan to link 25 000 colleges and 400 universities in an e-learning program, PC Training College‘s CEO, Jay Ramnundlall, believed that the time was right to enhance the educational landscape in South Africa. However, an evaluation of the “œ$35“ Aakash tablet revealed that the 7“ Android based tablet was not the device to deliver the dynamic and interactive experience envisioned. A task team then began the rigorous evaluation process that crossed the boundary between operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows), cost and performance in search of a suitable tablet to spearhead this program. Although there were many factors considered in the evaluation process, key amongst them were:

  • Affordability: As PC Training College was effectively embarking on this program without a government subsidy (like the Aakash initiative enjoys), affordability or rather value for money, was one of the key considerations in the decision making process.
  • Hardware: The tablet needed to have a capable processor with expandable memory. It furthermore had to be a 10“ tablet (to make the reading of notes and textbooks easier) equipped with a capacitive touch screen.
  • Availability of Apps
  • After Sales Service

After 5 months of research, the team entered into negotiations with Telefunken to develop together the Tablet that they required. They found in Telefunken, a company with over 60 years of presence in South Africa and an appetite for innovation. The initial Teleunken model offered was seriously “˜pimped‘ (bigger processor, more memory, capacitive touch screen) and due to the volume of tablets ordered, PC Training College also secured a 2 year warranty (1 year swap out and second year repair) a free protective cover and a pair of headphones. Due to this collaboration, the tablet being offered to students is therefore unique and cannot be purchased off the shelf in South Africa.

What is truly inspiring however is that this initiative goes beyond being  a mere marketing gimmick to boost enrollment numbers because the tablet comes equipped with all the course notes and study guides required for your studies. Agreements and access has been arranged to the digital libraries of some of the major textbook publishers. Related videos and lectures have also been bundled into the tablet to further enhance the learner experience. The tablet is not all work though. Popular apps bundled into the tablet include, Youtube, twitter, Skype, a video player and a music player. Since the device belongs to the student there is furthermore no restriction placed on apps that can be loaded onto the device.
PC Training College also factored in the social factors prevalent in our country before rolling out this program, realizing that for many students, this would be their first interaction with a computing device. There are therefore designated charging stations throughout the campus and internet access (vital when your textbooks are primarily accessible via the cloud) is catered for with free wifi hotspots for students.
It was inspiring to note in my discussion with the project team that they were not content with sitting on their laurels. They were already hard at work making course manuals more interactive, finding relevant vibrant media to augment their courses and developing and accrediting a very comprehensive eLearning programme to cater for the high demand shown by neighbouring African countries. The tablet PC initiative has also been presented to the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize who has supported the initiative and an audience is now being sought with the Minister.
The buzz on the internet with cloud computing, e-learning and media rich learning material, leaves one with the feeling that we are on the verge of a renaissance. Reviewing what PC Training College has achieved thus far, is akin therefore to viewing one of the earlier works of Leonardo da Vinci. I am anxious to see how this program evolves and adapts and also how the tertiary education sector responds to this kind of initiative.

  1. Hey Mohamed
    If they have adopted Android, and not the obvious Apple Textbooks, what have they used to build the content?
    Does it all come in the form on one “app”, or is it multiple source for different kinds of content?
    How do they manage deploying these sources of content to the devices?
    I’m one of the Apple fanboys, so I’m very interested to know 🙂

    1. Hi Lee
      Their content is currently all in pdf but they applied themselves when determining bookmarks etc. There is an app installed on the tablet called Repligo Reader which has the ability to highlight text and add notes, as you would on a conventional set of notes. It is nowhere close to the functionality offered in textbooks but it is one of the things they are looking at developing this year.
      All the devices are imaged prior to delivery with all the content. During orientation, excess notes and folders not required for your course are deleted.
      P.S. I have also downloaded “Life on Earth” 🙂

      1. Will this tablet be available to the public, and and at what cost? Can such a device also be used in secondary schools?

        1. Hi Suhayl. The tablet was borne out of a deal between PC training college and Telefunken. I am unaware of any patents etc and therefore assume that if approached, Telefunken may consider selling this device to other customers. I suggest that if interested, you chat to either Telefunken or PC training college if interested.
          I would be interested to know how you intend using such a device effectively in a secondary school environment.

  2. You know… I’m studying at PCTBC myself and all the talk about charging stations (for some reason they couldn’t develop a tablet that was 5V USB compatible for charging, opting for a 9V instead) is rubbish.
    The WI-FI access is sketchy to say the least and there are no computers which connect to the internet. Doing proper research on a tablet is not exactly the way to go.
    On top of that, the college has no online student area such as myUnisa, which is just sad for a “PC Training College”.
    Don’t get me wrong, the lecturers know what they’re doing, but for the annual fees we are paying, we should be getting a lot better education facilities. PCTBC has a long way to go if don’t want to be labelled as just another fly-by-night college.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Roberto. You make some very valid comments and as a student you should definitely try and make your views known in this regard. The reason I visited the campus was a comment I received on a blog I had written on iTextbooks. It was from a student at PC Training College telling me who happy she was with the system and that the seeds of the utopic educational future I spoke of in the blog, may have already been planted at her campus (my words, not hers). It was for that reason that I requested an audience with your lecturers to learn more of what was being done there.
      I was impressed with the vision and more importantly with how they were able to get the manufacturer to give them the specs they required rather than just purchase a device off the shelf. Try for example to get Apple to add a USB port onto the iPad to make it more accessible! Although I am not familiar with myUnisa, I do recall them speaking of an online student section but perhaps it is not the same. Finally, I was impressed that they did not merely bundle the cost of the tablet onto the existing fees, although I am certain that savings were made on their printing bill.
      Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.

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