Students’ free e-learning project challenges the need for multimillion-rand tablets in Eastern Cape

An SD card is handed over to a Vulindlela parent. (Photo: Dylan Coetzee).
An SD card is handed over to a Vulindlela parent. (Photo: Dylan Coetzee).

By Tristan Cooke, Dylan Coetzee & Pfunzo Ralinana.


The Eastern Cape education department plans to shell out R538-million to an Iqbal Survé subsidiary to lease tablets for 55,000 Grade 12s. That’s R9,781 per learner. Meanwhile, in Makhanda, a small group of Rhodes University staff and students are downloading a wealth of free digital learning resources and hand-delivering them to parents and children in their homes. The cost is under R100 per child. Three journalism students, Tristan Cooke, Dylan Coetzee, and Pfunzo Ralinana, report on their lockdown service-learning project. 

Our cargo is tiny; a micro SD card only 15mm x 11mm x 1mm, about the size of a fingernail. But, as the saying goes, “dynamite comes in small packages”.

Thandiswa Nqowana strides cheerfully up a sunny township driveway to make the delivery. We follow at a safe distance armed with hand sanitiser. 

This R89 card is for Luviwe, a Grade 12 learner and member of the Vulindlela programme. It contains 32 gigabytes of personalised learner support materials, aligned with Luviwe’s curriculum requirements. By slotting it into any smartphone in his household, he will be able to instantly access study guides, videos, past exam questions, and even some “reading for pleasure” materials. 

Vulindlela is a family education support programme that was powered up by the Rhodes University Community Engagement division in 2016 – custom-designed for support staff at Rhodes and their Grade 10-12 children. 

Thandi has been Vulindlela’s coordinator and ever-present engine since the start of last year. She is also navigating her first-year PhD in Biotechnology at Rhodes University. 

Last year the programme successfully enrolled eight of the 14 Grade 12 learners on the programme into Rhodes University for the current academic year. We have been working as student volunteers with Thandi for weeks on end. Today is the day – delivery day! 

Under normal circumstances, access to digital resources is limited for the Vulindlela learners, most of whom attend non-fee-paying schools. Eastern Cape libraries have been without internet access for over two years and all of them have, in any case, been shut, since March. 

Before lockdown, some learners were able to access learning resources in the computer labs at a local NGO youth centre, the Joza Youth Hub. But the demand for digital learner support materials has rocketed under lockdown – and access to the Youth Hub labs is now carefully controlled. 

The response of many South African teachers to this crisis has been extraordinary. Over 12,000 dedicated educators are now sharing a plethora of lessons, study guides, and exam papers – many of them zero-rated for data – on a user-friendly digital networking app called Telegram. Anyone – teachers, parents, learners – can join these (see the sidebar for instructions in how to join). 

Vulindlela launched its SD card project to allow learners instant and easy access to information on any of their subjects in their own homes. The teacher Telegram groups made it especially easy for us to find pertinent content. After weeks of sourcing materials on its forums, we simply personalised them to suit the curriculum requirement of each learner and copied them on to the SD cards. 

According to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (Icasa’s) 2019 report on the ICT sector, smartphone penetration has nearly doubled in the last two years and is now sitting at over 80%. 

All the Vulindlela learners live in households that have at least one smartphone with an external storage slot, allowing easy access to these materials – no internet or data required. The SD cards are delivered to the parents because Vulindlela is a family education project that has always emphasised their essential role in creating a supportive environment for their children. The children of involved parents experience less pressure and alienation. 

Vulindlela goes one step further by mobilising Rhodes students to tutor and mentor the learners through their last three years of high school. As we make our rounds on our delivery route, Thandi drenches everyone’s hands in cold sanitiser. We are getting accustomed to the pungent fumes. 

We meet Sanda Lukwe, a Grade 12 learner at Ntsika High School, who says he has seen a remarkable improvement to his marks, all due to the support and resources he has received from home and the Vulindlela team. 

Later, we arrive at Luviwe’s house. His mom, Nonceda Mngcambe, steps out to welcome us, drying her hands as she steps away from washing clothes. Nonceda’s excitement builds as Thandi details how the SD card works. It culminates in a loud burst of joyous chatter.

We are struck by how simple this is. A 32GB SD card can be bought for around R100. A committed parent can now support her child using technology she already owns. 

And we are left wondering: Why not subsidise smartphones for the 20% of South Africans who don’t have these devices? The R538-million destined for Sizwe Africa IT Group could buy half a million learner-enabled smartphones for the Eastern Cape. Now that would truly be “Vulindlela” (pioneering). DM/MC

Tristan Cooke, Dylan Coetzee, and Pfunzo Ralinana are studying at the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University.

Where to find learning resources 

Here are some guidelines on how to use Telegram (to join over 12,000 South African teachers and parents who are sharing education information, resources, ideas, strategies, and expertise):

Simply click on the links below to be taken to the app. Share these links with any teacher – the interaction is welcome:


  • GRADE 1

  • GRADE 2

  • GRADE 3

  • GRADE 4

  • GRADE 5

  • GRADE 6

  • GRADE 7

  • GRADE 8

  • GRADE 9

  • GRADE 10

  • GRADE 11

  • GRADE 12