Unathi had a vision that technology could be an enabler for under-served communities in Grade 11. It’s a vision that has been his true north ever since. Now he has set his sights on scaling up to the entire country.
Where did you grow up and what shaped you for the work you are doing now?
I had different transitions between under-resourced and well-resourced schools. I was born and raised in Mdantsane, the second largest township in the Eastern Cape. My schooling started in a township community with the very least resources. I then got a partial scholarship to Dale College, a former Model C school. I don’t know what drove me to do that, I filled in the applications and didn’t even tell me parents. I just knew I wanted to get my education at a school where the guys were wearing blazers and speaking good English. That was my concept of what good education was at that time.
When I got there, I realised there were so many of us who might come from under-resourced schools but who could do even better than I did. When I went there, my transition was socially awkward – I couldn’t fit in until the end – but academically I was fine. I was the second best student from when I started until the end matriculating with an A aggregate and getting accepted at UCT for Computer Science and Information Systems. That showed me at least half of my Mdantsane class could survive in this new community. If they were just exposed to an environment with computer labs and science labs – they could do physics and chemistry practicals without for example having to imagine what the colour change of adding chlorine to other chemicals looks like. That shaped my thinking in terms of development work. I had this idea, “what if we don’t remove students from their communities, but deploy technology in schools that are under-resourced so they could compete with other schools nationally?” So I enrolled for Computer Science with that focus and got my degree. My teachers at university inspired me further with the vision I had in Grade 11 that we can build technologies that can level the playing field in education. My final project in my third year was a digital chemistry and physics lab app that gave scholars a visual of what a chemistry and physics lab looks like.
My Honours and Masters projects were focused on enabling access to tertiary education.
So I created two apps and websites, Grades Match (www.gradesmatch.co.za), a digital career guidance tool and Bridge (https://www.bridgeapp.co.za), a digital tertiary education entry programme. These apps give learners from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to explore their talents at the highest level; reduces the number of drop-outs and ultimately helps find job opportunities for deserving young people.
Since my graduation, more than 175 000 learners have benefited from the practical implementation of some of my research findings. I believe that technology as an enabler will play a vital role in improving education practice, outcomes and access in the future if applied with well-researched fundamentals. I am enrolled in a PhD in IS programme to gain more knowledge on how Explainable Artificial Intelligence can be used to improve tertiary education access.
In South Africa there isn’t enough funding to cover our entire Quintile 1 to Quintile 3 cohort of about 7.9 million learners with interventions. We can’t reach everyone – which brings me to why I want to influence policy. That’s the level and the scale at which we can really effect change and this excites me. Scale excites me. We need more future-looking policy makers because I am confident that it can be done. All it will take is political will and public private partnerships. The South Africa government has approved a Central Application Service (CAS) Bill of 2019, which paves the way for central applications for tertiary education studies in the country. My research will be the first in the country to evaluate and produce a framework for an already running CAS system. The results will assist policymakers in framing evaluation studies and improvements areas once the policy is being implemented.