Ryan James is the Head of Development at the Good Work Foundation, a South African NGO that is reimagining education in rural communities. Their goal is to deliver wonder-filled, community-powered 21st century learning opportunities to these rural and marginalised areas. Find out more here: https://www.goodworkfoundation.org/about-us/#mission
R:Ed: Could you give a short introduction to yourself and the Good Work Foundation?
The Good Work Foundation is a South African NGO that looks at education specifically in rural areas. We look at who has access to education and we try to change that story. The whole point is to develop channels into rural areas and show the world that rural areas don’t have to be neglected and forgotten, and that there are very nimble and cost effective ways of creating exciting education innovations in rural places.
We are not an education technology organisation. We believe in people and we believe that real learning for a young person happens when they have access to people who are present for them. They can then build off of that base. That could be a teacher, it could be a facilitator, or their parent, or a granny or grandfather. We’re excited about creating environments where young people have someone else who’s present for them and from there we can start looking at technology and STEM subjects like coding and robotics, but we start with getting a young person curious and excited about learning.
My role is the Head of Development, so mostly fundraising but also a lot of our marketing and communications. I also work on our strategic partnerships with donors and with governments and private organisations, not necessarily just for funding but also for technical assistance.
R:Ed: Can you tell us more about the hub and satellite model?
We created a central digital learning campus in a semi urban area (mostly rural and previously disadvantaged people on a low income) and looked at how we could reimagine learning in that environment. Because it was a slightly bigger environment we could use that as a platform to pilot our programmes. That central campus was called the Hazyview Digital Learning Campus. Once we had created demand at Hazyview and shown that adult students saw the value in coming there, and once we saw that children and teachers were getting involved we asked ourselves how we could replicate this for the most rural communities. So we established satellites in the very rural communities that border the western boundaries of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. They are slightly smaller digital learning campuses because the communities there are smaller.
We’ve now got four satellites and they prove that digital learning and wonder-filled learning can happen in the most remote areas of an African country. You’re lucky if you get Wifi and there are many people in that village who have never been to the closest city in their province let alone Johannesburg or Cape Town. So to think that they are programming robots or collaborating with Stanford University and with students around the world is really cool.
R:Ed: Do you have plans to go beyond South Africa?
Our challenges in South Africa are really big so we want to focus on making impact in South Africa first. I think we’re ranked third last in the world when it comes to certain education metrics. We’ve got one of the biggest per capita education spends and yet we are ranked third from last. The need is huge in South Africa. We’re also suffering from massive unemployment. 65% of young people in the area that we are working in are unemployed, and across the country unemployment remains a huge issue. We believe that young people not only empower themselves, but also become better citizens of their country and the world when they have access to relevant and exciting education and employment opportunities.
R:Ed: Do you think that also explains the digital skills gap?
We talk a lot about the digital skills gap- it’s there, it exists, and there’s definitely a rural/urban digital skills gap. But if I look at a child who comes into our learning space and the child has never touched technology, in half an hour they’re navigating their way around a tablet. I think that the digital skills gap is a hurdle that’s not as big as we all think. The bigger problem is losing a child to a system where they’re not enjoying learning. The minute they enjoy learning and feel empowered to learn, they go on a learning journey whether there’s a teacher in their classroom or not. Whether their parent can speak english or not. Once you’ve done that, then teaching a child how to code can take a day or less. We shouldn’t talk about the digital skills gap or give it as much air time as it’s getting. We need to talk about the basics: Why are we not creating environments of joyful learning for children in South Africa and around the world?
R:Ed: How do you like to picture the South African education system in 10 years time?
We can’t confine ourselves to the word ‘system’ because then we are just hoping for it to change and we can’t hope for that anymore. We’ve had some positive steps taken in our political environment in South Africa recently but whether or not that’s going to change policy in education as quickly as we need, I’m not sure. We’ve all become a little disillusioned. That’s not just South Africa, that’s citizens around the world. So i think what we would like to see is young rural people who are not constrained by systems so they can value the fact they have skills regardless of if they have a certificate at the end of their school career. I want to see young people who are thinking ‘School is finished, and I can’t afford to go to university but I don’t have to. There are other options for me.’ We want young people collaborating with their brothers and sisters to create things that are based on digital or supported by digital tools. At least there’s less red tape in South Africa, so we can experiment and become leaders in learning that puts the power back into the learner’s hands and shows them that there are lots of other opportunities that you don’t need to rely on others to create. We have to move in that direction as a world.
R:Ed: Do you have anyone or anything that inspires you as an organisation and as a person?
In the leadership team Brene Brown really inspires us. To do what we are doing we really have to have the courage to go a different route and be vulnerable. THe funding environment is often putting pressure on us to scale or franchise or to use more technology and that environment to stop, take stock and to appreciate the people and culture that makes our model what it is today and trust that that is the way forward takes courage and vulnerability and love. Our facilitators are young and not formally trained but actually have a huge impact. We have to nurture them and show them they are champions and inspire them to continue to be champions. Nelson Mandela also really inspires us. He also believed in slow and steady. Yes there’s urgency but nothing can be built without vision and the support of like minded people so he continues to inspire us.