Computer Science in the New South Africa
by Philip Machanick
University of the Witwatersrand
CPSR News Volume 13, Number 1: Winter 1995
The University of Witwatersrand has had a long tradition of being a centre of opposition to apartheid. Now that apartheid has been formally abolished, it is interesting to observe how the university's position has changed, and how the former culture of anti-government protest has changed to one of protest about lack of access to higher education.
Some members of my department are attempting to address the problem of access by designing courses to bridge the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students; others are trying to build bridges with community-based organizations to address problems of poor schooling.
Given that universities in other countries have problems of this nature, especially in the US where large minority groups are in disadvantaged positions, it may be useful to share some of our experiences.
In this paper, I examine the change in the university's culture of protest from outward- to inward- looking, review some of the programmes my department has adopted, and outline strategies we are considering for the future.
In the last years of apartheid, my university was virtually a battleground. Although we did not experience the extremes of violence that afflicted shack dwellers and black townships (no one was killed on our campus), there were days in which police and protesters brought the campus to a standstill.
I was a member of a peacekeeping group, which attempted to protect the right of students to protest by forming a barrier between the protesters and the police. This strategy had limited success, as the police did not particularly care whether they fired a rubber bullet at a professor or a protester. However, I believe we were able to prevent some of the excesses which occurred elsewhere during that time. The fact that our campus was accessible to the press may have been a help.
During the first post-apartheid election, protest activity died away, as activist students joined election campaigns. However, even before the elections in April, protest action had started about issues such as restructuring university Councils to represent the community better, and financial exclusions (withholding education from students who cannot pay).
The university administration has not reacted sympathetically to these protests, and student leaders have had difficulty mobilizing support. Many of the protests have degenerated into vandalism. and forums set up for handling disputes have not been used effectively by either side.
One of the projects I am trying to encourage is connecting schools in Soweto to the Internet.
While the two sides have been involved in unconstructive confrontation, concerned individuals have been working on problems that concern students. My department has recognized for some time that there is a huge gap between students with prior exposure to computers and those who never see one before arriving at university.
Our major strategy for dealing with this gap has been to move programming to later in the curriculum, and to start earlier than before with theory, algorithm design, and other topics that do not give a great advantage to those who have used computers previously [Mueller et al. 1990, 1993 Sanders 1992 Sanders and Galpin 1994]. At the same time, these topics illustrate to students who have already learned to program that computer science is not just about programming.
A secondary strategy is the appointment of a tutor whose major responsibility is to offer support to disadvantaged students.
Some members of the department also take special trouble to identify and aid students whose confidence needs to be built up. For example, I offer an extra introductory week to such students before a major course on data structures and algorithms in our second year curriculum.
We are able to report some positive results from these strategies, though the number of black students in our classes is still far too low.
Helping students once they are in university has two inherent weaknesses: it reduces the time they have for normal study. and it does not help under-prepared students to gain access to university.
I am therefore investigating how we can build relationships with community-based organizations, especially those already active in promoting science education. One such organization is Protec, which has branches nationwide. Protec runs tutorial programmes for disadvantaged students. I am hoping to help Protec set up computer courses. as well as advise them on what kind of donations to seek.
One of the projects I am trying to encourage is connecting schools in Soweto to the internet, to improve their access to resources. Many schools in such areas have very poorly equipped libraries, and information from Internet sources would be a major resource for them.
I am also working on setting up a community advisory board for my department, which will feed information to communities that have had little access to the university, as well as help us to understand students' problems. I am also inviting representatives from companies to join this initiative.
Mueller, C.S.M., Rock, S.T., and Sanders, I.D., "An Alternative CSI Curriculum," SACLA Conference, Thaba N'chu, June 1990.
Mueller, C.S.M.. Rock, S.T., and Sanders, I.D., "An Improved First Year Course Taking into Account Third World Students," Proc. 24th SIGCSE Technical Symposium Indiana Convention Center, Indianapolis, Indiana, February 18- 19, 1993. pp. 213-17.
Sanders, I.D., "Research in Computer Science Education at the University of the Witwatersrand," SACLA Conference, Rustenburg, July 1992.
Sanders, I.D., and Galpin, V.C., "A Survey of the Attitudes to Computing at the University of the Witwatersrand," Proc. 5th Conference on Women, Work and Computerization July 2 - 5, 1994, pp. 108-22.
The following data on the state of schools in Soweto give some indication of the scale of the problem. During the apartheid era, when "white" schools were separately funded, no white school was without a proper library and most had well-equipped science labs. Most historically white schools these days are open to all, but these well-equipped schools offer very few places in relation to overall demand.
Figures from Soweto Education Crisis Committee Total number of schools 410 Schools with libraries 94 (36 adequately stocked: private donors) Schools with science labs 5 (not all fully functional)
|0-6||too young for school||325,000|
|7-18||at school||357,000 (includes 15,300 at street academies)|
|6- 18||not at school||455,000|
|Primary||294||146,200 (first 7 years of school)|
|Secondary/high||68||84,500 (last 5 years of school)|
|Satellite secondary||30||15,800 (overflow from secondary)|
|Tech high schools||4||3,300|
|Tech teacher training||1||50|
|Teacher training||1||1,088 (includes 348 part-time)|
|Primary schools: Substandard Standard|
Philip Machanick is a professor in the Computer Science Department, University of the Witwatersrand, 2050 Wits, South Africa. He can be reached at email@example.com
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