Innovative, quality high school education will be available to all South African learners from January 2022, when the University of Cape Town (UCT) launches its new UCT Online High School. The virtual high school is a partnership with the Valenture Institute, a South African education technology company specialising in high school education.
The initiative has been endorsed by the Western Cape government, and takes advantage of the strides made in online teaching and the ability to scale quality education to reach a broad range of learners in different circumstances, said Vice‑Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng at the launch on 21 July.
As such, the development will address the challenges of two South Africas: one resourced and advantaged, the other under‑resourced and disadvantaged. These disadvantages are perpetuated throughout learners’ lives, and compound the poverty trap.
Professor Phakeng said that the multifaceted problems facing the education sector need multifaceted solutions.
“We can’t keep doing the same things over and over, and expect different results. We need to disrupt basic education.”
“We can’t keep doing the same things over and over, and expect different results. We need to disrupt basic education,” said Phakeng.
A new model of education is needed for the 21st century, to transform learning ecosystems.
The new school will also capitalise on UCT’s experience gained in moving to virtual platforms and online learning, accelerated in education institutions around the country because of the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Phakeng said that the concept had been extensively tested abroad; for example, Stanford University and George Washington University in the Unites States run successful online high schools.
Two offerings, one platform
The online high school has two offerings, both leveraging the same education platform and opportunities.
The first is the UCT Online High School; affordable fees‑based education direct to learners’ homes, at a monthly cost of R2 095. (The good news for UCT staff and their children is that they will qualify for a fee reduction, with higher discounts for UCT permanent staff in pay classes 2 to 6.) A special needs division is in the pipeline once the online school has reached a critical mass of 10 000 learners.
The UCT Online High School offering includes:
The second offering is the Open UCT Online High School, a free, online, blended‑learning platform for all high school teachers and learners, using the same platform that the fee‑paying learners use. It will operate free in micro schools that will be established in community facilities such as libraries, church halls and community centres, with a trained mentor in place at each. The mentors will not be teachers: their role is to provide adult supervision, and to hold learners accountable and keep them on track.
The first micro school has been piloted in Mitchells Plain in the Western Cape. In the 2020 academic year, on average, learners at the micro school jumped three grade levels in maths, science and English.
As the Western Cape Department of Education has agreed to licence all content as open content, it is freely available to teachers and learners at other schools in the country or on the continent.
“Our objective for the open platform is that it act as a valuable educational resource to multiple stakeholders in the sector, and enable others to embed innovative, scalable, high‑quality solutions into their education,” said the Valenture Institute’s chief executive officer, Robert Paddock. “The open platform users will have access to all subjects on offer by the UCT Online High School.”
The development required no capital outlay from UCT, and will operate according to a revenue‑share arrangement, with UCT getting the greater share of the economic value created. The project has been backed by a generous grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
Unleashing human potential
Phakeng said that the development is part of UCT’s Vision 2030, designed to unleash human potential.
“This is not just about making UCT sustainable, but [about] giving South Africans the tools to unleash their own potential … The aim is to change the trajectory of high school education in the country, particularly in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.
“With poor resources, learners fall by the wayside, condemned to a lifelong struggle with no way out of poverty. Sadly, the gulf between the two South Africas is widening.”
For every 100 children who start school in the current system, only six will achieve an undergraduate degree.
“Yet the fate of all of us is knit together. Our future, in many ways, depends on narrowing that divide and educating our people – and particularly the youth.”
UCT Council Chair Babalwa Ngonyama said that the development is the culmination of nine months of intensive stakeholder involvement, which included government.
“Our belief in driving excellence is behind this decision. Africa’s top‑ranking university is not an ivory tower removed from South Africa’s realities. In 1997, the World Bank and UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] convened a task force for higher education, and said that higher education is not a luxury for developing countries, but essential for developing countries.”
“By making excellence accessible to all, we are making inclusivity practical to all.”
She continued, “Excellence in higher education depends on a strong higher education system. To achieve excellence at UCT and other universities, we need a strong foundation for our children to find work – even if they don’t pursue a degree. It’s not exclusionary. By making excellence accessible to all, we are making inclusivity practical to all. It’s part of building a fair and just society.”
A vital facet to this is the opportunity to break gender stereotypes.
“We look to the UCT Online High School to nurture women leaders of the future.”
Adding to this, UCT Chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe said that COVID‑19 had eroded many of the gains made in public schools, especially for young women.
“Inequality is widening. We must act swiftly to ensure every child’s right to learn … The events of the past week showed the levels of disaffection among communities; this is not a stable path to freedom. Our youth now must be the generation that rebuilds what has shaken loose in our society and economy.”
Dr Moloi-Motsepe added, “Using the conventional education model, we can’t build physical schools fast enough to be able to serve Africa’s growing education needs. We can’t train and recruit teachers fast enough to meet the estimated 350 000 new teachers required every year to educate the youth bulge on the continent. Even if we could train enough teachers, the best teachers don’t tend to continue living and working in the areas that need them most.
“[But] what if we can provide an alternative blueprint for scaling quality education on the continent? What if Africa is the continent that countries turn to in the future, to seek inspiration and innovative solutions to hard problems?”
Her excitement was echoed by many UCT staff members who attended the virtual launch. Their comments included “This is a fantastic, hugely impactful solution that our country needs!”, “This is transformative!”, “Well done, VC… a timely response to the emancipation and transformation of our environment – Amandla!”, “Super-proud to be part of UCT!”, “Can’t wait to see the impact of this breaking structural barriers to education!”
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