South Africa’s First Educational Search Engine for Zero-Rated Websites
It is no secret that the pandemic has caused immense damage to the education sector. The lockdowns that have been enforced all over the globe have widened the education access and quality gap.
The pandemic has afforded schools, districts, provinces and countries of means an opportunity to accelerate their digital transformation across their value chains. Unfortunately, this is not true for the majority of learners in both the developed and developing countries. Many have been left behind reversing the gains made in the last decade with respect to enrolment and other important education metrics.
Since the onset of the pandemic there have been calls for the quick implementation of digital solutions to facilitate remote learning. Interventions have spanned from student success and experience platforms to online admissions and enrolment infrastructure.
Two key technological advancements have lowered the bar for new entrants into the online learning arena.
Firstly, learning management systems are now a commodity and anyone can install a system like Moodle in under five minutes.
Secondly, the interoperability of edtech solutions has made it possible to integrate seemingly disparate systems into functional ecosystems.
These two advancements mean that technology is not the biggest barrier to online learning. In the emerging markets, affordable data and access to broadband have been the biggest obstacles to attaining the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) especially in response to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Africa, like many other nations pro-actively negotiated with Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in the country to zero-rate educational and health websites and applications. The MNOs obliged and the country’s programme represents the world’s biggest intervention of this kind ever. Kudos to the South African government and corporate sector for this success.
In as much as this intervention has gone a long way in alleviating the broadband access and data affordability challenges for learners, the supporters of net-neutrality were not amused, as this practice gave an unfair advantage to the beneficiaries of this programme. This article will not dwell much on the net-neutrality argument, it is too complex to dissect as a retrofitted component of this article.
Although I am a supporter of net-neutrality, I believe that during a storm, tough decisions have to be made to keep the ship afloat thus I think that the decision to zero-rate education and health websites for continuity of teaching and learning was rational.
Education and health organizations had to apply for zero rating via the Departments of Health, Basic Education and Higher Education and Training. The right to grant access to the programme was reserved for these government departments.
It is almost a year since the programme was rolled out thus it is necessary for all stakeholders to evaluate whether the intervention has meaningfully contributed to better short-term outputs. Metrics per beneficiary site like number of online learners, number of sessions per user, average session duration, bounce rate, academic performance can be used as proxies of learner engagement for the purpose of evaluating the impact of the zero-rating programme.
A key problem with the South African zero-rating intervention was the lack of sufficient information dissemination for parents, learners and teachers to know which sites were zero-rated. This problem was coupled with the lack of ring-fencing of the zero-rated websites to guarantee learners access to data-free education.
MathsGee, a South African edtech company saw this gap and came up with MathsGee ZeroEd, a custom search engine dedicated to South African zero-rated education websites and applications. We tailored the search experience to ensure that any results that a user gets is from a zero-rated South African entity. For validation and verification, all the search results on MathsGee ZeroEd are based on the websites and applications that have been submitted for Zero-Rating to the Department of Health (DOH); Department of Basic Education (DBE) and Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).
Another requirement for inclusion into the MathsGee ZeroEd database was for the site or app to be public and indexable by major search engines like Yandex, Bing and Google.
Inspired by other socially responsible custom search engines like Ecosia, MathsGee ZeroEd has pledged to plough back 60% of all its revenue from the ads displayed on the MathsGee website. The money is going to be used to buy data for learners that need the assistance the most.
MathsGee aims to bridge the technology access gap by maximizing the digital inclusion impact per dollar possible and to buy 1G data for 100 000 learners by January 2023, contributing to a world where every child has a shot in the new economy. This is in line with the organization’s belief that, “Everyone deserves access to quality educational content and infrastructure”.
MathsGee QnA: https://mathsgee.com
MathsGee Education Resources: https://mathsgee.com/learn
MathsGee Education Search Engine: https://mathsgee.com/zeroed