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Online schooling in South Africa – what to look out for

More parents have been forced to enrol their children in online school platforms by the recent pandemic, oversubscribed government schools, and the cost of private education, says managing director of ADvTech Schools, Chris van Niekerk.

Institutions, including private firm Curro and the University of Cape Town, have moved to offer online education programmes, with the latter becoming the first African university to launch an online high school.

In conversation with BusinessTalk, Yandiswa Xhakaza, the UCT Online High School director, provided a brief outline of the state of online schooling in South Africa and what the new UCT programme offers, having already admitted roughly 5,000 students following in excess of 10,000 applications.

Xhakaza said that the school would need to place a deliberate threshold on the number of students it admits to ensure that the ratio of teachers and learners remains balanced; however, they are expecting 150,000 students to enrol over the next three years.

She said UCT planned to contribute to the ailing basic education system after seeing the effects it has on new students arriving at university. The aim is to create a university-based high school.

Xhakaza said the main benefits of online schooling include:

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  • Flexibility, in that students can learn from anywhere and that it is accessible 24/7.
  • The pace of the curriculum is in line with how each learner interacts with subjects; if someone moves through the curriculum faster, they are then not held back and can go on.
  • An assortment of online tests and procedures to ensure that learners cannot move on unless they understand a subject. There are many opportunities to test their knowledge.
  • Working online encourages self-discipline in learners as they have to make an effort to engage with the work.

According to UCT, courses start at R2,095 per month (R25,140 a year) following an activation fee of R200 and R300 per extra subject per month.

Internet for the school is yet to be zero-rated; however, Xhakza noted that parents save on not having to buy a school uniform or pay for transport.

Private education group Curro is among the collection of ‘traditional schools’ that now offer an online learning programme. Curro Online aims to provide remote teaching and learning to children in grades between 4 and 11. The company said it has enrolled more than 600 learners to date – citing its most recent reporting.

Its programme is seen as an alternative to mainstream schooling but with a high-quality curriculum and home-based teacher interaction throughout the day.

Curro said its other offerings, such as Curros DigiEd Schools and Curro Choice, offer innovative digital tuition processes and choice of subjects for high school students.

School fees for the group’s online offering range between R3,920 and R4,500 per month, while its traditional offering ranges between R5,590 and R9,850 depending on the grade.

Warnings

While online schooling offers many benefits, there are some caveats, experts warn.

“As we come out of the pandemic and children return to brick-and-mortar schools, many of our principals have reported that the damage done by some of the more unscrupulous online schools are evident,” said ADvTech’s Van Niekerk.

Here are some warning signs noted by ADvTech:

Emulating a brick-and-mortar school timetable

According to Van Niekerk, many schools switched to an online timetable that emulated the traditional version. It only worked in the short term, as it was during the hard lockdown.

However, it is ‘educationally unsound’ as students are made to sit in front of a computer for six hours a day. Therefore, alternative timetables which account for the differences in online schooling need to be in place.

Recorded lessons with “help.”

He stressed that it is objectively wrong for online schools to expect that 14-year-old teenagers have the discipline to watch 6 hours of lessons that aren’t live.

“The children get deprived of any real-time collaborative learning and are expected to equip themselves for adulthood from the isolated confines of their rooms.”

For online schooling to have the exciting prospects, that are possible, parents must first accept that children (of any age) cannot simply be placed in front of a screen with the fantasy that they will gain the life experience required to mould them into well-rounded adults, Van Niekerk said.

He warned against an online schooling curriculum that does not offer the following:

  • an integrated, balanced and intelligent approach to screen time and time away from the computer,
  • a clear and evidenced-based methodology to enable individual learning paths, and
  • does not understand and address the integrated social needs of your child.

Moving with the times

As more South African schools work towards improving their tech offering in response to the need to prepare students for the future of work, parents should ensure they get a solid understanding of what is required from a high quality, holistic EdTech programme, said Nadia Dal Lago Nell, academic advisor: EdTech and Innovation (Schools Division) at ADvTech.

“While we may realise the importance of preparing children to navigate their future digital world, understanding what factors inform a programme which is based on academic excellence, and which incorporates the newest technologies while also focusing on digital citizenship, is crucial. Parents, therefore, need to view their school’s offering and promise of digital skills with a discerning eye,” said Dal Lago Nell.

Dal Lago Nell stressed the importance for schools to seek to provide an enhanced educational journey by investing in their students through the integration of technology into the curriculum, as opposed to tech being a standalone educational unit.

“The result of technological integration into the curriculum is a more efficient and engaging educational experience. The need for digital literacy and the discerning use of technology by students is essential for them to continue to advance in their education and be equipped with relevant skills for their future workplace,” she said.

Schools that can give students the educational edge will have several of the following on offer: programmable robots, interactive coding platforms, Minecraft, 3D printers, iPads, laser cutters and even indoor drones.

“Ideally, schools should have dedicated EdTech spaces designed to suit their unique approach to technology and incorporate a variety of devices with a strong emphasis on collaboration. A practical EdTech Framework should also be central to the technology foundation that students are guided through.”

Dal Lago Nell said EdTech lessons equip students with future-focused, transferable global skills that are necessary for success in all areas of life.

“The central skills here are creativity and problem-solving which are taught through open-ended activities and emphasising the possibility of multiple solutions for any given problem. This provides students with a space for both collaboration and individual growth.”

An additional element of the EdTech Framework is Digital Citizenship.

“This engages students and shows them how to connect with one another, in an empathetic and safe way through digital tools, platforms and devices. Negative digital habits such as cyberbullying, irresponsible social media usage and unsafe use of the Internet are explained and strongly discouraged.”

Read: Big language changes planned for schools in South Africa

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