Lack of ChatGPT and other AI resources leaves SA learners behind

The fourth industrial revolution is taking the world by storm with AI technologies like ChatGPT to make life 'easier', but what about learners in struggling countries?

ChatGPT is an AI language model that uses natural language processing to generate responses to user input. It is accessed using internet connectivity, on a digital device. Whether you are for or against the idea of a superior search engine that can pretty accurately respond to your question, you cannot deny that the technology is here to stay and that for many people globally, ‘work’ just got easier. In education, AI will not replace the teaching professional. However, as in any other professional field, says futurist Graeme Codrington, the teachers who use AI may just replace the ones who don’t. Learners who harness its power will open themselves up to knowledge previously out of their reach. The academic game is irrevocably changed.

Gr 4s are taught in the prescribed curriculum that machines are tools to make work easier for humans. There is nothing easy about accessing and using AI innovation without a few 21st Century basics: electricity, connectivity and hardware. Add a devastating inability to read for understanding in any language in 82% of children in Gr 4, and it is safe to say that entering the fourth and evolving fifth industrial revolution is but an elusive pipedream.

South African children’s barriers to the power of AI and relevant careers include illiteracy, poverty, electricity blackouts, data and technology costs. Anyone looking to brighten our nations’ economic future is compelled to place education at the top of their agenda.


Raise readers

Lifted straight for CHATGPT when the input was to explain why children who can’t read can’t benefit from the AI model the response came:

“ChatGPT relies on written language to communicate and provide information. Therefore, children who cannot read would not be able to fully understand or benefit from the responses provided by ChatGPT. They would need to develop their reading skills first in order to effectively engage with the system.”

In March 2020, the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) rolled out a reading strategy built on six pillars: learner support, teacher professional development, research, parental involvement, materials and advocacy. The pilot project targeted a specific group – Foundation Phase Afrikaans and isiXhosa learners in selected schools. In sum, it worked. Focused attention on literacy levels using 360” approach delivered improved literacy results. The Funda Wande NGO and the WCED are taking the programme wider. The estimated costing of a full rollout to all Afrikaans and isiXhosa learners in the Foundation Phase in the Western Cape comes to a total of R110 913 424,00 over the next three-year period. Their goal is that every child will read for meaning by age ten. This cohort has half a chance of entering the technology revolution. Where are the rest?


Address poverty and unemployment

Hunger and a life of poverty cannot be dismissed. Upwards of 60% of children in South Africa live below the upper poverty threshold (StatsSA 2020). Books and readers aren’t priorities in their homes. Food is. No child can read if they haven’t eaten food, making school feeding schemes imperative. Non-proficient readers drop out of school and the poverty cycle perpetuates itself because readers lift themselves and others out of poverty. Hence, reading is of importance to all South Africans. As seen in the WECD study, regular intervention, quality materials, research, advocacy and supported teachers are what it takes to deliver hope for a nation. The Presidential Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI) is responding to the call, training thousands of young people as teacher assistants to promote and monitor reading. This is a smart, scaled response to both the literacy and employment crisis.


Electricity blackouts

Educational institutions, like hospitals, should be pleading for exemption from load-shedding in school hours. The sector is too quiet and accepting. It’s possible that the calls may be met with deaf ears, but what are we saying about the educational imperative if we don’t even try? In the education budget, there must be provision for alternate power supplies to fuel devices, lights, communications and kitchens so that food is not threatened and technology programmes can continue.


Data and technology

Costs for learners and registered schools must be supported by big businesses if the world of work intends to onboard relevantly skilled people in the next 10 years. Data bundles should be cheap or funded entirely. Devices and also network infrastructure used strictly for educational purposes should be import duty and VAT free. Suppliers could be held accountable or scored in terms of ‘doing good’ in this area.

With the advent of easily accessible AI, robotics and coding careers, and big data demands in the world of work, educational reform is more pressing than ever. It is a national priority that should be enabled by co-ordinated public-private partnerships. Perhaps it is salient for ChatGPT itself to comment on the matter:

“Public-private partnerships can enable technology in schools by pooling resources, expertise, and funding to provide access to technology infrastructure, training, and support services. They can also help bridge the digital divide and promote equity in education by reaching underserved communities.”

Come now, South Africa, let none get left behind. It is on us to futureproof the next generation. For more information, visit


Article supplied by Alison Scott, the executive principal at Bellavista School.

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