The University of Cape Town has entered the secondary school market by becoming the continent’s first university to launch an online high school in collaboration with Valenture Institute.
Speaking at a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said the model would democratise the education system by giving students access to the “most affordable private school” in the country “offering a high-quality education with support from expert teachers and mentors”.
Present at the briefing was UCT Chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, UCT council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama, Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga and Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer.
The school has two offerings: the formal high school where students are enrolled at a fee of R2,095 a month, the second is access to a free zero-rated platform for the general public to access the curriculum without mentorship or tutoring.
The school’s “ecosystem”, as it is described, includes blended learning micro-schools for learners to access a physical space (if needs be) as well as hardware and internet connection.
Learners will not follow a standardised teaching schedule with live classes but have asynchronous timetables and access to one-on-one as well as group sessions with teachers.
The school will officially open its doors in January 2022. Grade 12 classes will only start in 2023.
The CAPS-aligned curriculum will offer ten subjects to learners in grades 8 to 9 and 14 subjects for grades 10, 11 and 12. More subjects will be added each year.
In future, the school will provide a series of bridging courses, matric rewrite programmes and alternative university credit programmes “to provide South Africans with alternative and affordable pathways to achieve tertiary awards,” said Phakeng.
According to Robert Paddock, the CEO of Valenture Institute, the online learning experience is based on six core pillars:
Valenture Institute, which partners with established institutions to offer online learning opportunities, has for the past few years piloted a blended learning micro-school for learners at Beacon Hill High School in Mitchells Plain, Western Cape. This is a partnership with the Western Cape Education Department and EdTech company iBhodi Trust.
“A blended learning micro-school is effectively taking existing infrastructure and converting it into a co-learning space.”
He explained that the micro-school in Mitchell’s Plain is an old storeroom that was converted to include open plan desks, private meeting rooms, access to computers and an on-site mentor who doesn’t teach but provides adult supervision and pastoral care.
Paddock cautioned that a purely online approach to learning is a poor solution for children in rural and impoverished areas.
“One of the incredible functions that schools perform for these children is acting as a safe haven from the harsh realities of home. So the idea that we need to give learners a laptop or a smartphone and internet access and learning will magically happen is wrong.”
When asked how many micro-schools the UCT online school would offer and where they would be located, Paddock said the number is not cast in stone but would depend on funding and which areas donors and the department of Basic Education see as viable.
Paddock did not clarify how many students will be enrolled in 2022, but explained that the school can scale to thousands of students in the coming years.
The micro-school in Mitchell’s Plain will serve as the first blended learning facility for the high school.
According to Paddock, the online school has approached corporates and philanthropists to arrange scholarships for learners who may struggle to afford fees.
Explaining the governance structure of the school, Council chair Babalwa Ngonyama said an oversight committee chaired by the UCT Vice-Chancellor and including the CEO of Valenture Institute and a principal would oversee an Operations and Governance Committee which ultimately steers the school head and the staff.
Phakeng said students enrolled in the online school would not get special preference for admission to UCT, but during their schooling, they would have access to UCT professors as well as the “work ethic” required of a UCT student.
Once the project reaches a critical mass of 10,000 students, Nongoma said dedicated special needs staff would be hired to attend to students with disabilities.
The online school is part of UCTs Vision 2030 to create new ways to approach South Africa’s complex problems, one of which is to “to advance holistic, innovative future-oriented education”.
“We need a combination of physical inspiring places of learning, driven by audacious digital-first learning solutions if we are to stand a chance of achieving the leapfrog type results we need to educate this continent,” said Moloi-Motsepe. DM
Applications for the school are open and can be accessed at www.uctonlinehighschool.com.
The headline was adjusted on Sunday 25 July, 2021, to accurately reflect the quote that it is seen as the “most affordable private school” in the country.
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