The big interview with Mr Steve Thobela, Novus Holdings Group Executive: Africa Business Development.

By Dumi Mbona

South Africa remains a highly unequal society with the majority of communities in Townships and Rural Areas excluded in the fast paced changing digital environment. Schools in these areas are a reflection of this exclusion as they remain in an undeveloped physical and digital infrastructure.

Covid-19 exposed this underdevelopment when schools in the Urban and City Areas opted to go online in order to save the 2020 school year.

According to Mr. Steve Thobela, Novus Holdings Group Executive: Africa Business Development, in a piece written on the Novus Holdings Website, physical books remain a fundamental educational resource in schools who have limited to no access to digital solutions. “Access to books for academic purposes is critical for South Africa. We simply cannot risk intensifying the literacy challenges we already face within our country and in that, the delivery and availability of physical books remain essential so that we can continue to build a reading nation.” see the rest of the article here.

Tag My School Magazine decided to engage Mr. Thobela on the importance of physical text books in comparison to the fast paced digital education and here is how the interview went:

Mr. Thobela thank you for taking time out to have this important conversation with us.

Do you think that both physical books and digital learning can co-exist? and how can schools strike the balance between the two?

There will always be benefits to both online learning and physical books.

We do however need to be realistic and acknowledge where we are as a Country. Currently, if our Government schools did not have access to printed reading books and workbooks, there will simply be no education.

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Studies have shown that Generation-Z cannot function without their gadgets, teachers are advised to integrate these gadgets in their teaching approach. What role can the Print Industry play in order to reach this generation of gadgets?

Technology for distance learning has been revolutionized during the COVID-19 epidemic; teachers have been forced to become more tech-savvy to make remote and online learning fun for their learners (and their parents). Those with the means have been using video-conferencing through apps and websites on laptops, tablets and cellphones to teach locked-down learners in real time. Teachers and learners can see and hear each other through the webcam, microphone and speakers, and teachers can share their screen and ask questions using the chat function. Programmes such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google Classrooms have quickly become part of the daily school vocabulary.

Teachers can also post short, pre-recorded videos with lessons presented by themselves or experts in various fields using tools such as YouTube, Vimeo or Microsoft Teams.

However, Print is still at the center of all learning. Even when teachers have had to use different platforms to facilitate learning, their source of information is print and often they refer their student to printed material whether it be textbooks, study aids or workbooks. Even in the case where books are digitally available, for purpose of learning research (Two Sides being one such), it shows that students print these or sections thereof. The use of QR codes in printed matter creates a very helpful symbiosis between print and digital platforms and thereby further enchasing learning using both digital and print.

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Rural and Township schools have majority of families living below poverty lines and may not afford these gadgets, how can Physical Textbooks become priority for these families without feeling like they are being left behind due to their circumstances?

This is exactly why I advocate for print. While the government is rolling out digital programmes which are likely to take a number of years, a situation now exacerbated by COVID-19, the students in the disadvantaged areas do not have to suffer loss of learning if print can still be made available to them. The digital technologies must be seen only as complimenting and enhancing learning and not as replacement of print.

Schools in Townships and Rural areas have had a long history of textbooks shortages, textbooks vandalism and damages, (1) is the Print Industry willing to partner with the education sector in ensuring that these concerns are addressed, (2) any advanced technology introduced to create or print textbooks that can withstand the harsh environment in these communities?

Since 2012 the South African Department of Basic Education has achieved great success through its partnership with Novus Holdings, Lebone Litho printers and DSV who prints and distributes over 60 million school workbooks annually – covering subjects such as Literacy, Numeracy and Life Skills, in all 11 official languages.

In 2021 Novus Holdings delivered more than 60 million workbooks to more than 12 million pupils, to over 23 000 schools throughout the country.

The current finishing and quality of paper used is such that books can be used beyond just one academic year.

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Any awareness/ career drives to attract young people into the business of print in its entirety?

The Novus Academy is the Group’s accredited training institution offering a range of technical, life skills, management, leadership, IT and systems courses and programmes.
All apprentices are contracted for a period of three years.

The first few months of training are spent at the Academy where the fundamental component is completed. For the remainder of the term, learners continue their education at the plant where originally recruited.

Learner competence is assessed on an on-going basis through theory and practical assessment to equip the apprentice for the final trade testing on completion of training.
Novus Holdings also supports Printing SA which owns the only other Printing college in South Africa. In so doing this ensures that other small printers that do not have their own academies are also able to train for the benefit of the broader industry.

In the age of Covid-19 enforced social distancing, textbooks turn to exchange hands a lot amongst the students, what would be your safety protocol advice in this regards.

According to leading doctors and scientists across the world, there have been no positive COVID-19 virus cases confirmed where COVID-19 was transmitted from a print newspaper, print magazine, print letter or print package.

Early scientific research on virus transmission suggests porous surfaces such as paper carry the lowest potency for the shortest period of time.
However, continue to sanitize, wear your mask, and take every precaution when handling printed material.