Lessons learnt from the UCT online high school’s first year

Learning online is a trend for the future, despite the fact that parents have raised various concerns. l PIXABAY

Learning online is a trend for the future, despite the fact that parents have raised various concerns. l PIXABAY

Published Jan 16, 2023


OPINION: The most important lesson here is that the education department ought to take a closer look at online high schools, writes Wesley Diphoko.

The UCT Online High school has just completed its first year of operations marking an important milestone in the history of online education in South Africa.

When the school was launched, UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng had this to say: “The University of Cape Town is committed to playing our part in addressing the systemic challenges facing our education system.

“As a result, we have taken the bold step to launch an innovative online high school in January 2022, where the academic excellence of UCT can be extended to high school learners across the country.

“The UCT Online High School will create a new opportunity for learners across South Africa to choose an aspirational school and unleash their potential."

UCT was able to start such an online high school through the support of an SA-based education and technology start-up company, Valenture Institute.

"We're delighted and humbled to partner with UCT on this ground-breaking initiative" said Valenture's CEO and founder, Robert Paddock, when the school was launched.

Now that the year has drawn to an end we have the opportunity to assess the performance of the school based on its first year of operations. Current reports show that it has not been a smooth process for learners, teachers and parents.

Since the school opened in January 2022, 5 507 learners have enrolled . At the end of the year the school had 4 483 learners enrolled.

According to recent reports, parents and guardians have raised concerns about the quality of marking.

Some reports indicate that the school has outsourced its marking function.

In response, the school has indicated that it works with a number of partner organisations in providing the full array of services that are essential for providing quality teaching and learning online and at scale.

These include Teach Me 2, which engages and trains their first-level markers for internally-assessed tests and assessments that cannot be automated.

Following this initial marking stage, all first-level assessments are returned to the school, then get reviewed, and a proportion are moderated by their fully-qualified teachers.

All end-of-year examinations are graded by qualified teachers.

The school has also indicated that its system of assessment is analogous to the systems used by universities, where first year assignments are graded by graduate teaching assistants and then moderated by faculty. The school insisted that this is not a third-party outsourced arrangement, as alleged.

The school has also indicated that they conduct all aspects of moderation themselves, and this includes investigating all apparent inconsistencies, and technical and administrative errors.

Despite this, some parents have indicated that they regret the decision to enrol their kids at the school as their performance had drastically changed for the worse. Some raised serious concerns about lack of communication from the school.

Some concerns raised were related to lack of support for learners which is something that the school has disputed. The school has learnt a lot from its first year of operating and will probably consider these concerns going forward.

As the year is coming to an end the school is planning to cut down on its staff complement.

“Based on our comprehensive data set, and related insights, from our first year of operation, we are introducing a range of enhancements to our learning and teaching model that will be fully implemented for the start of the new school year in January. This has necessitated a realignment of staffing roles.”

All of these developments are part of starting a technology driven product. The school initially struggled to get teachers for an online environment.

The teachers who joined the school sacrificed, in terms of income, and benefited by working from anywhere. The challenges experienced are also normal developments in an environment where a technology is used to change a traditional practice like education.

What is concerning, however, is that some of the errors and challenges that are part of starting an online education solution may affect the development of learners. In a different environment errors in the process of innovating are tolerable as the impact is not that impactful to human beings.

In this context, some teething problems will have a devastating effect on learners. This, however, shouldn’t discourage efforts to pursue an online education model as another avenue of enabling access to education.

The most important lesson here is that the Education Department ought to take a closer look at online high schools.

There’s a need to create norms and standards to guide the online education sector. In the absence of government oversight, we are likely to see more challenges as more parents adopt online learning as an alternative to the traditional schooling system.

In an environment that has major challenges around the schooling system, the innovation by Valenture Institute together with UCT should be supported. Challenges experienced during the first year of operations at UCT Online High School should serve as lessons on how to improve the online learning environment.

* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine. You can follow him on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko