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It’s no secret that the world is turning digital. There is digital news, online shopping, and digital forms of communication. Digital education is also growing rapidly. You can pay for or access free online courses offered by reputable universities or independent companies; access various educational applications teaching children everything from pairing objects to learning new languages; stream an online talk or an instructional education video; read an e-book on any topic; and even study from a digital textbook. Despite obvious bandwidth and accessibility issues that exist in South Africa, what’s great about digital education products is their ability to allow learners to develop in virtually any location, at their own pace and on their own time.

Recently, I attended the Google in Education South Africa Summit and was amazed at all of the online educational products and opportunities that are currently out there. For the most part, they are easy to find, access and explore, and as someone who grew up in a world before and after the rise of the internet, the possibilities and opportunities that it now provides our children really makes the idea of online learning seem that much more exciting and fun.

Searching school

The internet is filled with valuable information, and some not so valuable, so it’s important that a child learns how to sift through it properly, effectively and safely. It’s a skill that they should develop as it will help with their problem-solving and research skills – two things they will need along their educational path, so understanding how to get the most out of their online searches is extremely important for their academic future.

At the summit, Kevin Sherman, head of curriculum and learning at Parklands College in Cape Town, described a few of the online tricks of how to search effectively online. We learnt things like how to search for a phrase we couldn’t fully remember, images only in one colour, and content of a specific reading level.

Google has also developed some online learning lessons, videos and games to help students get the searching results they need. Check out Google Search Education, and in particular, the lesson plans, Power Searching Quick Guide and the A Google a Day Challenges.


Connecting with culture

Google is also more than just a search engine. They’ve created a number of additional free websites that allow viewers to take part in things they normally wouldn’t have daily access to. One of these sites is the Google Cultural Institute, a collaboration of various cultural initiatives, one being Art Project.

Using Street View “‘indoor’ technology”, Google went into a number of museums and galleries, throughout the world, and created a range of 360 degree tours, where visitors can click and move around a museum as if they were there themselves. The experience has a similar feel to the images found in Google Earth or street view Google Maps. Now, students in South Africa can experience what it’s like to visit a museum in Brazil without even leaving their homes or their classrooms.

In keeping with the art world, they’ve also compiled digital copies of a number of galleries all over the world. They’ve collated over 45 000 images in high resolution, some of which have been photographed using “gigapixel photo capturing technology” – allowing extremely defined and high resolution images. If you open one of these images and zoom in extremely close, you’ll not only be able to see the textured and uneven paint on the surface of the canvases, but you’ll also be able to see, in high definition, the artists’ brush strokes. They even give you the opportunity to look at more than one painting at once. At the summit, Chris Betcher, an educator and currently an ICT integrator at PLC (Presbyterian Ladies’ College) in Australia, explained that with this technology, students in an art class will now be able to study and compare the art strokes of different artists simultaneously, something you probably wouldn’t be able to do even if you visited these museums in real life.

This website also gives visitors the opportunity to create their own virtual gallery by compiling their favourite pieces, adding personalised comments and sharing their collection with others.

In addition to the galleries, they also offer Art Talks where experts discuss intriguing topics relating to certain artists or their works.


Virtual visits

Ever want to visit Stonehenge, The Palace of Versailles, Antarctica or the Grand Canyon? Now with World Wonders, visitors are able to tour various places around the world without ever having to stamp their passport, pay exorbitant prices, or hassle with student consent forms.

Using what they call “Street View Technology”, Google has made a number of world heritage sites visible online. Like Art Project, visitors of World Wonders are able to have a 360 degree view of places they may not have normally been able to visit. In order to reach some of these destinations, they’ve modified the way they acquire their images by attaching their technology onto different modes of transportation like a bicycle, snowmobile, a train or a boat. They’ve even managed to offer images of what it looks like under the sea in the Great Barrier Reef. In addition to the lifelike views, visitors also have access to photographs, videos, information and maps.

The educational benefits of a site like this or similar sites like Google Earth, or Google Maps, can vary from gaining history and geography to English knowledge. Children can be sent on virtual treasure hunts, learn map skills, and chart the birth place of their favourite writers, historical events or monuments. All that’s needed is a little bit of creativity.


Hosting history

With websites like Historic Moments and Cultural Figures, the Google Cultural Institute provides us with a view into the past by offering historical documents that are not always accessible to the public. Historic Moments allows viewers the ability to search and read about a number of events throughout history from D-Day to the fall of the Berlin wall. Once they’ve searched for an event, visitors are given a timeline that includes blurbs, pictures, videos, and primary documents from that era. If a timeline has not been produced on the event searched, there are usually photographs or other things that the viewer can look through. While teaching us about this site, Betcher made note that there are quite a few timelines relating to Nelson Mandela and South African history, which may be of interest for South African history students to use.

Although it’s similar to Historic Moments, Cultural Figures is another historical site that focuses on key influential figures from the past rather than specific events. Here viewers can examine timelines from people like Anne Frank and the South African heads of government from 1909 to 1993. Having a resource like this can allow learners to see the impact that various individuals have had on a specific era, culture or movement.


Sharing experiences

Another topic discussed at the summit revolved around using websites and online forms of communication to collaborate with students on the other side of the world. Wendy Gorton, an education consultant in the United States spoke about the benefits and the many possibilities that are out there for teachers or children wishing to do this. Children can work on projects together and collect data that contribute to a group project, or they can communicate with another class in a different country to find out information on a topic they are learning about at school. In the process they get to see what life is like in another country, learn about faraway places, and build potential lifelong friendships.

These methods can also be used to contact professionals, other individuals, experts or celebrities that agree to speak to a classroom on a specific topic. These types of opportunities are excellent as they allow students the chance to communicate with people who possess first-hand experience and knowledge about the things they are studying. But it also helps to make these topics come to life and gives them more of an understanding of the types of careers that come from studying these fields later on in life.


Other educational websites to visit

  • This website provides access to computer science, giving anybody the opportunity to learn.
  • Constitute Provides access and opportunities to compare the many constitutions of the world.
  • Coursera A website offering free online courses from various reputable universities across the world.
  • Khan Academy A resource of educational videos for students, teachers and parents offering lessons on practically everything.
  • TEDEd A number of educational videos on offer. Educators are also given the opportunity to “flip” their classroom by customising their lesson with these videos, adding additional questions, and tracking who accessed the lessons.
  • The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Visitors can view digital versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and can read what they say through the English translations offered.
  • YouTube Education Offers a number of educational videos for school children, university students or lifelong learners.

Cassandra Shaw