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A screenshot from the Axium teacher dashboard on Siyavula, tracking activity since the start of the year.

14 179: this is the number of practice exercises completed by Axium’s Ekukhuleni students in the 7 weeks since introducing them to Siyavula, an online learning platform that aims to make excellent math and science teaching accessible and affordable for all. At an average of roughly 2000 exercises being completed by the Ekukhuleni cohort each week, it is no wonder our teachers are excited about this new partnership.

“One of the biggest issues here is resources. If no one has textbooks, when the learners get information they just grab it,” said Anthony Fry, who has worked with Ekukhuleni Science for the past 8 months. “It’s probably about 50/50 at the moment with half the class maybe not fully seeing the value of Siyavula yet and the other half really seeing the value.”

Siyavula is a technology-powered learning company that transitioned into its current form out of the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project in 2012. Navigating their chic website, one finds exciting open access textbooks in maths and science for multiple grades. These books have been collaboratively created and are openly licenced so you are encouraged to download and share them freely.

The second part of Siyavula’s work supports regular, diverse practice of math and science through exercises generated on their platform. Siyavula uses adaptive technology to help students practice smarter, not harder.

The program is able to track a learner’s progress and automatically offers exercises pitched at a difficulty level that keeps them in their zone of “optimal cognitive load.” This means keeping them challenged and motivated, while avoiding either boredom or frustration. Learners also receive instant feedback on their work and can access data on their own progress.

If a student attends a Quintile 1-4 school, as ours do, they can sign up to access this service for free. Axium’s learners have been signed up as a group so staff can see Siyavula’s helpful teacher dashboard. This lets us monitor collective and individual progress.

So far, we’ve noticed some very promising trends. Some students have flown ahead, individually finishing over 300 math and science exercises in certain weeks. Others have been able to perfectly answers questions on completely new sections of work after working through the Siyavula resources ahead of class.

The site tracks useful statistics that help us understand these student achievements. Our dashboard presents easy-to-read graphs showing triumphs and challenges. With these, it is easy to find out which students are doing particular exercises, where they are struggling, and when they are most active, helping us tailor support.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. Part of the challenge this first term has been helping learners create accounts and navigate the differences between “sign up” and “log in”, among other obstacles. The team celebrates this as another opportunity to deepen lifelong computer literacy skills that are difficult to achieve in a rural area with very limited access to computer resources.

“We’re not just wanting them to learn maths and science, we’re also wanting them to learn computer skills so that when they do go to university or any kind of tertiary institution and are expected to do anything computer related, they’re not confronted with it for the first time,” said Adam Reynolds, a teacher who has worked for Siyavula for three years and forged the link with Axium.

Another challenge is access. The service can be used on a feature phone so students don’t need a smart phone. It is also zero-rated on the Vodacom and MTN networks, which helps hugely. However, there are still barriers: many don’t have a basic phone or, if they do, lack power to charge the device or experience issues with network coverage.

Then there are the challenges any teenager would face: “It’s just extra homework,” laughed Adam. “As motivated and wonderful as these kids are, it is still extra work!”

Adam and his wife, Jo, built a connection with Axium director Craig Paxton during a brief period of intersection when they were teaching at Pinelands High School. The couple from Cape Town have been working towards moving to Zithulele for some time. Siyavula allowing Adam to work remotely helped facilitate this new partnership.

“This is an opportunity to see how I can leverage what I do there and what I do here because there’s got to be a symbiosis in there somewhere,” Adam said.

The relationship is already proving symbiotic. Being in Zithulele helps Adam tailor the physics and chemistry questions he designs for Siyavula to the specific context of rural students. These are Siyavula’s main target audience, although they do also have paying clients from private schools.

“It’s quite important that the questions are actually relevant to students in this kind of rural context,” Adam explained. “It’s for everyone, but the people we really want to reach are the ones who need it most, so the ones who don’t necessarily have teachers or miss a lot of lessons or don’t have textbooks.”

Certainly, building Siyavula’s ability to serve these students in overcoming these difficulties will be wonderful for our work. “I’m really positive about this,” the Ekukhuleni team’s Ant said. “I think we’ve invested a lot of time in it this year and we’re a little behind where we'd like to be in the curriculum as a result, but it’s definitely been worth it.”

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