Interview: Kirsten Wilkins of Formula D highlights the importance of tech in the educational sphere

Interview: Kirsten Wilkins of Formula D highlights the importance of tech in the educational sphere
Kirsten Wilkins, project manager at Formula D, giving a talk at TEDxCapeTown in 2014
Interview: Kirsten Wilkins of Formula D highlights the importance of tech in the educational sphere
Kirsten Wilkins, project manager at Formula D, giving a talk at TEDxCapeTown in 2014

Every day we hear about new revolutionary technologies being launched or developed that could change the way we live and work.

Innovations like self-driving cars, robotic assistants and virtual reality headsets have propelled us into the future. Virtual reality, in particular, has come a long way since the conception of the first simulation device in the 1920’s. Today, anyone can travel back in time or have a virtual experience for the right price.

This is where Kirsten comes in. Kirsten Wilkins is an urban designer and a senior project manager at Formula D. She believes that schools need to start developing a progressive technology-friendly ethos that will attract excellent critical thinking teachers to the profession. Kirsten and the team at Formula D believe in using technology in an out of the box way to make for a more engaging and dynamic learning environment, like a virtual chemistry lab table that’s safer and more affordable than the standard chemistry labs in schools.

What is Formula D’s plan of action to change the state of education in South Africa?

A broad plan of action to transform the institutional learning landscape would be bold, however within the problematic current context of SA education, we are looking to be innovative implementors of real solutions. With every teaching moment opportunity, we want to focus on exceptional solutions, innovative technology, and collaborative partnerships, creating examples of excellence. There are many talented individuals advocating for pedagogical transformation, policy shifts and a change in the education landscape.

We want to support those thought leaders by being design and create leaders bringing practical learning methods and technology into the mainstream. Our Virtual Chemistry Lab design is a great example of that. Mixing volatile chemicals in a digital interactive way brings a hands-on enthusiastic spark to learning material that would otherwise be expensive and practically impossible to replicate. Teachers are given the opportunity to move from “what” to the bright-eyed curiosity of “what next?”

What do you think would be the best way to implement an effective e-learning strategy in South African schools?

From my perspective, e-learning is a double-edged sword. Effective technology in schools can and should serve teaching staff as well as students. I see this in the effective management of administration and communication to parents as well as in the equipping of students. As a parent of children in a relatively e-learning wise school, in my opinion, I see these facets working well together. Teachers who are well equipped and supported have the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with students and parents.

While the transfer of information in a fun way is often perceived as the role of technology in schools, I believe there is a lot more scope for having tech-wise schools that advance and make possible the face to face interactions where critical thought happens in earnest. Learning is not just taking in of information, it’s the whole experience of what school can be. An e-learning strategy that takes this holistic environment experience into consideration would be very successful in my opinion.

What kinds of obstacles need to be overcome to turn schools into more tech-friendly learning spaces and how do education policies need to change for that to happen?

Access to technology is probably the most simplistic answer but I think we are beyond that. At the helm of innovation is the quality of decisions made by school principals and governing bodies to accept new ideas. A willingness to be somewhat experimental and be willing to be collaborative. This is really at the heart of the design thinking tools that we use when designing solutions: prototyping, user testing, thinking big but remaining practical. A principal trusting a keen teacher to implement solutions and innovations with their class can create the seedbed for a whole school switching to a more streamlined and technology friendly ethos.

So, one of the greatest obstacles is the “this is how we have always done it” mentality. This does not just apply just to education.

Do you believe that the use of technology can help foster a love or better understanding of subjects that are often considered “difficult”, like maths or science for example?

Absolutely. One of the loveliest and simple learning bots I encountered created 3D graph drawings of algebraic equations. The learning was simple: maths is art and a curious beauty, not an indecipherable Sanskrit. This made me see algebra in a new way and more willing to learn. Technology brings the opportunity to add curiosity and experience into learning, committing to memory the foundations of critical thought.

Often times, the difficult subjects are often those which require practice and a honing of skill. This is where gamification becomes an additional tool in the technology suite. Progressing, advancing, and working as a team to solve challenges progressively: these are the hallmarks of game making that provide a pleasant departure from punishing repetition. Additionally, subjects in my opinion are not harder or easier, they are just more or less attractive to the inherent talents of students. Technology, gamification and play used strategically can give a wider range of talented learners opportunities to thrive.

Does Formula D have any potential plans to assist other African countries in the same way that it is working with South Africa and the Dominican Republic?

Yes. Our work in the Dominican Republic has given us the opportunity to ask a simple but important question with regards to conservation: “How can technology and innovation in learning experiences significantly contribute to environmental conservation” In the Dominican Republic you can meet an 8m manta ray without donning scuba gear and tearing across the ocean in a fuel burning boat.

Our innovation is a digital one-on-one encounter that prompts a duty of care. Conservation grounded in respect and reverence for creatures is profound no matter what the age of the learner. This is a the heart of our work in the Caribbean. On our continent, the conservation challenges are as pertinent and we are exploring ways to use these learning technologies to establish an admiration and care for local endangered creatures. Both past and present (and yes, also dinosaurs!).

By Daniëlle Kruger
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