SchoolNet SA’s purpose is to act as a catalyst and an enabler of positive change for the education system. Omashani Naidoo talks to me about her journey to lead this public benefit nonprofit company that focuses on ICT in education for teaching and learning.
What was your career path to SchoolNet?
I’m a maths and computer science teacher by trade. After teaching for about four years, I joined Mindset Network, an NGO involved in broadcasting and content development, to present maths lessons on broadcast television. I then started developing materials for their IT syllabus as well, across print and video media. After I was retrenched from Mindset, Janet Thomson, then the CEO of SchoolNet, invited me for an interview, and I haven’t looked back! I started out as a Project Manager, then Operations Manager, and when Janet retired in 2019, I applied for the position and was appointed as the Executive Director. I’m like part of the furniture!
Tell me more about SchoolNet
SchoolNet has been operating nationwide in the education sector for the past 24 years, focusing on ICT in education for teaching and learning. We work in teacher development and community development through digital education. Our work takes us to various underserved communities and we ensure that our digital education programmes are practical and show Teachers how ICT can work in their specific context. Digital Education is not simply about access to digital devices; there is also a huge need for training and development to be contextualized in a way that teachers can practically integrate their learnings in their daily work in the classroom. It is a complex situation and understanding the context in which people work is so important.
When COVID hit, it really showed how important our work is. Teachers were left in a quandary as to how to reach their children and helping them embrace digital learning was critical.
SchoolNet has worked in a number of projects across the years. These range from teacher development in multigrade schools, where teachers are supported in using digital devices to create learning stations for different grades in the class and, in this way, create the space for teachers to teach age-appropriate content. Another project is where we supported foundation and primary school teachers to use devices that had been sponsored by exploring the free applications that could support foundation skills, such as literacy, number sense and deeper skills such as comprehension and mental maths. One of our current projects is setting up a computer lab for a school in the Northern Cape which serves a small community and our approach is to ensure the school acts as a hub for computer literacy and development for the community.
What does your job currently entail?
My job is a really interesting one. The Executive Director position is a combination of Chief Executive Officer and Financial Officer. One part of my job involves managing the administration and the finances of the organisation, but the most important aspect of my job is the people management. We use a horizontal leadership structure in our organisation. I am lucky to be surrounded by strong women, which is really fabulous. Having a team of women who are passionate about working in education and supporting our people is really amazing! I still immerse myself in hands-on training, though – I really enjoy being out and about. SchoolNet prides itself on ensuring that any teacher who attends a workshop has a practical experience to prove to themselves that they are able, and more than capable, in their journey of optimizing the affordances of technology. Our methodology is quite strong in that it uses the cognitive apprenticeship model, where a facilitator shows teachers how to do a task, then shapes and guides the teacher to complete the task on their own, and eventually fades when the teacher showcases independent learning.
What are some of the big issues that you deal with?
One big issue is how NGOs are perceived in the ICT sector. We are often seen as the ‘poor relation’ and this is a difficult perception to overcome.
Another big challenge is that the focus in most digital projects is on deploying devices. But development and support in how to use these devices in engaging and purposeful ways should be of equal importance. Most people don’t understand that just because you have been given a digital device doesn’t mean you can learn how to use it yourself. Few people can navigate their own digital learning and our experience has shown that most people need guidance and support to get going. The professional development trajectory is not a once-off event or a short, two-hour workshop; it is a learning journey which is different for each person. And as a result, it is difficult to show immediate returns in investment and impact. We have to work through a number of issues such as fear, low self-confidence, school environments, and take people on a professional development journey. Training has to be pedagogically sound and relevant for our diverse contexts -- this is an important focus for us.
You work in a demanding space. What do you do to take care of yourself?
It is difficult! I read a lot, and I do some yoga and have learnt to breathe. Our team meets weekly and mental wellness is a key consideration for us. We also host a range of development programmes for all staff and play games. We have passion for developing and supporting our people and this motivates us to keep going.
If you could have a superhero on your team, what would their skill be?
I would have a motivation superhero on my team, one who can use their superpower to bring change to our people more quickly and more widely. A superhero that is able to nurture, guide and support more of our people to be self-aware, reflective of their actions and be critical thinkers who can navigate their lives and take others with them on their journey. Our motivation superhero would enable all our people to feel pride in themselves, see their value, and embrace what they are bringing to the world.
What is your favourite part about your job?
The people! I love my job and I love working with people. I get to work with so many people from so many different contexts. Knowing that we have affected so many people, and they are engaged with what we are doing, that is the best part of the job. When you treat people with kindness and respect they never leave you. All the people we have worked with at SchoolNet are like close friends and family.
What advice do you have for people entering the nonprofit sector?
We need to ensure that people are doing things for the right reasons, and not just for the promise of money. Working with integrity and passion is key to success. We further need to understand that NGO work is to serve people -- ensure that you are supporting and developing people with understanding and compassion to guide them to fulfilling their purpose. Where there is passion and where there is a will, you can move mountains.
Where do you see SchoolNet in future?
We have lots of digital education courses at the moment and we are building these into a digital portal that everyone can access. Ultimately, we want to get SchoolNet to a position where all our programmes are freely available, and there would be a pathway to growing one’s skills through a diverse array of programmes. We are a now a zero-rated site for data, which is a great step in the right direction. This means that our website is accessible even if you don’t have airtime or data.
Any final thoughts?
Developing people is not just about checklists and compliance, it requires careful thought and consideration. Ultimately our goal is to see practice changing on the ground – that is when you know you have really made an impact.
More about SchoolNet South Africa: https://www.schoolnet.org.za/
Ruen is the founder and director of Hashtag Nonprofit. She has over 20 years of experience in consulting and managing online communications and technology for the development sector. She produced a series of e-books on communications strategies for nonprofits, and has worked with clients across Africa and in the United States.http://www.interiority.co.za