Learning lessons: UCT Online High School is something of a curate’s egg
Even though UCT Online High School is a great initiative, the reality is that many South Africans who are in desperate need are unlikely to have access to it. But the school has the potential to pave the way for what is possible in secondary schooling.
Abduraoaf Sandan is a Master’s candidate in education at the University of Cape Town. His current research is focused on the implementation of a computer-based literacy programme in no-fee primary schools. He has also spent two years working in the EdTech space and currently serves as an EdTech adviser. Matthew Wingfield is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University. He has done research on social movements, rights-based activism and representation. His current research is focused on the Philippi Horticultural Area, looking at conceptions of community engagement and the politics of natural resources.
The University of Cape Town (UCT) this week launched its Online High School, to much fanfare and praise. The brainchild of Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and a private online high school, Valenture, this development has been touted as a “high school for all”.
In a country whose education system is characterised by shortages of educational resources, lack of adequate infrastructure and various barriers to access, it is clear that current interventions by the South African government have not been successful in transforming the education system.
While we do not reject the opportunity and possible value of an online high school, this development needs to be critically evaluated within the current educational landscape in the country in order to indeed be a “high school for all”.
It is well-documented that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with close to 40% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2015 and the top 10% of the population spending 7.9 times more than the bottom 40% of the population. Statistics like these show how wide the inequality gap actually is: to further contextualise this, the national upper-bound poverty line for 2015 was set at R992 per person per month and has been inflation-adjusted to R1,268 in 2020.
When considering the upper-bound poverty line, approximately 55% of the population fell below this line and were classified as being poor in 2015. This translates into a lack of funds available for school fees, along with other school amenities such as uniforms, textbooks and any additional tutoring, for most of the South African population.
The proposed Online High School would cost R2,095 per month, which certainly would not be accessible to the large majority of South Africans. To address this barrier to entry, UCT Online High School states, “we’re busy working with government, sponsors, philanthropists and all-round good human beings to help subsidise fees”.
Though this is a noteworthy attempt at trying to address the issue of inaccessibility, it is not clear if funding has yet been secured, how many learners would be able to benefit from such subsidies or what the subsidy structure would look like.
In addition to this, UCT Online High School has also made its learning content freely available to those who are unable to come up with the necessary funding. As admirable as this is, learners will need a lot more support than a subsidy in tuition fees and access to free content to fully participate in online schooling.
One’s full participation in online learning is premised on the accessibility of technological devices and adequate infrastructure. As we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, the lifeline of online learning is limited to those who can afford it.
Research conducted by Nhlanhla Landa, Sindiso Zhou and Newlin Marongwe has shown that “in such emergencies [e.g. disruptions from Covid-19], poor communities are vulnerable and access to technology for reasons other than basic survival and obtaining essential information is a luxury”. Furthermore, this research recognises that the disproportionate majority of those affected by such circumstances are those who live in former “homelands” marked by a lack of infrastructure.
This is exemplified when one considers that only 36% of the South African adult population own both a cellphone and a computer/laptop, speaking to what is commonly known as the digital divide. This in turn limits the implementation of e-learning innovations like an online high school.
While the premise behind the development of UCT Online High School is commendable, the contextual information above illustrates some of the challenges that need to be overcome. The proposed solution is the use of micro schools, much like those currently employed by Valenture in Mitchells Plain. This model allows learners who do not ordinarily have the resources needed to adequately engage in online school to go to one of the micro-schools that will have “everything” they need. It is also still not clear how many micro-schools will be established and where they will be situated, as much of this is dependent on donors and the department of basic education.
The use of micro schools comes with its own set of challenges, like the number of learners who are able to attend a micro school and the distance learners would have to travel to get to one, if one is even available in their area.
While innovation within the education sector is welcomed and desperately needed, we must not lose sight of the fact that for many South Africans, learning online is still a desire far removed from the reality in which they find themselves.
Even though UCT Online High School is a great initiative, the reality is that many of the South Africans who are in desperate need of an initiative like this are unlikely to have access to it. That is not to say that there will be no initial benefit to those who are excluded from UCT Online High School. The online school has the potential to pave the way for what is possible in secondary schooling.
The inequality that is seen in the education system is a reflection of the inequality seen in South African society. This initiative, while having to function in such a landscape, can alter the conditions which hinder its progress. Addressing inequality does not happen overnight through a single solution but rather requires a multimodal approach and many years for results to become visible.
But by working together and bolstering the current education system, steps can be taken in the right direction. The proposed initiative can act as a guiding force for what we want to see in the greater South African context, but only if it takes full cognisance of the challenges which face it and the country as a whole.
This opens up the possibility to develop inclusive, and realistic educational resources that will truly come to the aid of the leaders of tomorrow. Only through critical collaboration can we truly make quality education accessible to all. DM
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