Rise of online schooling

The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied

A series of new tech-enabled campuses for an online private high school are set to open in Constantia, Newlands and Cape Town city centre in January next year.

Covid-19 is making the future happen faster for schools, which have had to move into online learning during the lockdown, but the Valenture Institute, a global private high school, blazed that trail before lockdown happened.

It started at the beginning of this year and currently operates completely online, with an internationally recognised curriculum tailored to the needs of each pupil.

Early next year it will open five campuses – each accommodating up to 80 pupils from Grades 8 to 12 and offering a blend of virtual learning and in-person support and experiences. Academic classes are completed online with daily live lessons. Pupils are also supported by educational psychologists and coaches.

According to Valenture, the campuses will have a shuttle service, catered lunches, a music and recording room, an art and design lab, a gym and personal trainers as well as a dietitian, and there will be weekly online guest lecturers from Oxford, NASA, Harvard, Google and Deloitte.

The school says campuses will have real-time Covid-19 monitoring, including taking students temperatures and campus air-quality control.

There will be two campuses in Johannesburg and three in Cape Town.

“We want to ensure that although students are studying online, they have an intimate experience,” said Rob Paddock, founder and director of the Gardens-based company.

The annual fees range from R95 000 for Grade 8s to R115 000 for matrics.

Pupils have to write an entrance exam and scholarships are made available to the underprivileged, says the school.

Heather Ditmarr, of Claremont, has two children at Valenture and believes it’s the future of schooling.

She found the school last year and it piqued her interest because her family intended to move to America in March this year. Their move was delayed due to Covid-19 travelling restrictions.

Heather liked that her children’s schooling programme would not be interrupted by the move because everything was online.

Her daughter, Olivia, who is now in Grade 9, had previously been bullied in junior school, she said.

At Valenture, pupils were “noticed and known, and are not just lumped into a grade”, she said.

“When we were still in school, you were known if you were either really smart or really naughty; there were too many students for individualised attention.”

Valenture also had a diverse student population and accommodated a lot of children who would have challenges in regular schools, she said.

“Anyone can go to a school like this, there’s three boys from the township who go to the school, another girl who’s ill, a girl from Australia, a kid who has a single mom who travels a lot and wants her to travel with her, another one who plays an Olympic sport, there are all kinds of different kids.

“What’s great is that you don’t have to sit with anyone at break, or care about the things that don’t matter.”

Parent-teacher meetings were much quicker and easier, as instead of having to wait in a queue to see a teacher, parents had 10-minute Zoom calls with their children’s teachers who knew exactly who the pupils were.

The teachers were “on it” when it came to mental health and social issues and could pay attention to each child because they did not have to split their attention between 30 at the same time.

Olivia said that the online high school had been very accommodating to her and her brother.

“The system works, it’s so structured and individualised, to the point where, my brother – who has severe ADHD, and school has always been tough for him to focus on- has that one-on-one attention. And then for me, who’s someone who likes school but struggles with the social aspect, can do well too,” she said.

She added: “When you look at it, school hasn’t changed in 100 years, it’s still the same as the Victorian era, and that’s crazy. How are we not changing something that affects everyone? For example, I was done with all my classes and all my work by 1pm today and I had the whole day to myself.”

Olivia said that one of her friends who went to a traditional school, on the other hand, finished school at 3pm, had sport until 5pm, then would still have to do three to four hours of homework in the evenings.

“When the virus hit, nothing changed for me, even a pandemic did not stop schooling for me. I’ve always had to pull myself out of my comfort zone at school because school accommodates the majority and then people who are an inconvenience fall through the cracks.”

Olivia said even load shedding wasn’t a problem because the live teaching sessions would get recorded so pupils could catch up later.

“School’s don’t realise how easy it is to change,” she said.

Landie Diamond, national deputy president of the Education Management Association of South Africa (EMASA) said the sort of blending schooling offered by Valenture wasn’t for everyone.

“Firstly, we are culturally a very communal society in the African diaspora, which means we are deeply relational beings who depend on social contact and human interaction. E-learning solutions are largely the opposite of that, even in so-called hybrid models. This is because we thrive on praise and feedback. By feedback I mean the whole range of written, verbal, non-verbal and emotional feedback. Online learning provides only a limited subset of the whole range of feedback options and where they match the in-person response, it is distant by design because it is still remote,” she said.

“Hybrid models of learning feed into social isolation because by it’s very name it suggests distance learning.” she said.

In South Africa’s largely working class society, where parents working long hours could offer their children scant attention, children tended to need a lot more motivation and drive.

“This truthfully speaking constitutes more of our work as teachers than teaching itself in the SA context. Think about how strict we have to be with truancy and the work hours we spend on mediating absenteeism. That’s apart from the draining exercise of getting work out of kids rather than getting it into them! Hybrid models by design require and demand out of necessity strong self-motivation and exceptional – if not perfect – time management skills. Our students in general default on both of these, except for a marginal upper elite, which could explain the choice of locations.”

Ms Diamond said that though digital learning and introducing information and communications technology (ICT) in schools was important, it was also just important to consider exclusion and exclusivity in the South African context.

Western Cape Education Department spokeswoman Kerry Mauchline said the department had long recognised the importance of ICT and had invested substantial time and budget into developing smart schools with integrated technology.

“ A major challenge in this regard is providing resources to the many learners that do not have access to the internet or appropriate devices when not at school,” she said.