SA digital textbook pioneer makes top list of global thinkers

South Africa has taken big steps in education, and while it might not seem that way for people who are not involved in the cultivating of young minds, the educational system is actually shifting towards technology more and more – away from traditional textbooks.

One of the most prominent players in this field is Via Afrika’s CEO Christina Watson, who has made it her mission to bring digital text books, tablets and bandwidth to as many schools in the country as possible. Via Afrika has helped create digital libraries in township schools, and its e-texts are common features to every school computer lab we’ve visited in the past.

In recognition for her efforts, Watson has been named as one of 2014’s Top 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine. But does she consider herself a global thinker?

Christina Watson, CEO of Via Afrika

“No, I don’t,” she chuckles during an interview with “It was a surprise to me. If you see what other people are doing, here in our little place you don’t feel like you can do something.

“Initially I wondered if it was true,” she confesses.

Digital text books are still a new concept to many in South Africa, but as technology creeps into even the smallest of places, it’s not that far-fetched of an idea here.

“Compared to the rest of the world, we are actually not that far behind. There are two things you need to make this happen: money and bandwidth. I went to the USA to see what they are doing there, and we are further than some of the places there. The political will in South Africa is strong to make it here as soon as possible.”

Foreign Policy Magazine used a certain set of criteria to shortlist the candidates in the ‘Innovator’ section, and “while some inventions may be cool, sleek, and handy, others have the capacity to transform entire fields and individual lives. They aren’t just making new things; they are defining the contours of humanity’s future,” it explained.

Watson is passionate about digital text books and driving education into the 21st century, but there are some thing that need to happen before all of this can truly take shape. One of the most important things is education for the trainers themselves. If you have educators who are unable to teach the children how to use a tablet, the operation will be fruitless.

“In South Africa you have people coming into schools dropping off content and tablets. But that doesn’t make a difference. What we found is that you need the right combination of training, content and technology such as tablets. The education department realised that you need the right content, and I think that they are on the right track.”

In an ideal world, there are a number of things that would make Watson extremely happy about the future of education in South Africa.

“I would like each child to have a functional tablet with additional material and bandwidth, have a teacher to facilitate the learning with content and technology. We still need to learn how to switch over, but if you have content, skills and training, it is possible.”

The inclusion on the list and the accolade goes much further for Watson than a plaque on the wall and handshake. She will actively use the award to lobby more companies and corporates to assist in the digital deployment of more materials and content.

“This is the real reason I am excited about this. Look at the results of pupils who have improved their grades [as a directly of digital learning]. We can’t duplicate this on our own, and I will be approaching corporates to fund the implementation of this in as many schools as possible. We can use this award to tell people how it works and to grow it into a better environment.”

While supplying schools with digital textbooks and tablets are part of her mission, the accompanying smiles from pupils is also what also drives her. She explains that tablets make a huge difference, not only to the people who use it, but to the community at large.

“The community realises that someone wants to make a difference, and it has a ripple effect. At first the children have a reluctance to touch (the tablets), but when they see it responds to them, it makes a huge difference. It’s so strong.”

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