Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|September 21, 2021|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

High school virtual! An online dream or nightmare for the poor ?

As a new virtual high school prepares to open its online classrooms to the continent, questions are being asked about whether it will herald an online boom in education or merely be another perk for the rich.

High school in Africa. Polishing your shoes the night before; a blazer and grey pants on the next crisp morning. A wooden desk and the squeak of chalk on the black board.

An innovation from the University of Cape Town (UCT) could make all of this a mere memory for thousands of African school children for generations to come.

This is because UCT is planning to be the first university in Africa to open a virtual high school with pupils on laptops far from the squeak of chalk.

In January 2022, theUCT Online High School will start teaching grades 8 to 12 South Africa’s national Curriculum with a broad range of subjects. The university says it has already signed up 4,000 children from all walks of life in a number of  African countries online.

“We can’t keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results. We need to disrupt basic education,” said Professor MamokgethiPhakeng, UCT vice chancellor.

Phakeng is no stranger to struggling for education. She started school in the Marapyane village and then Ikageng Primary, in Ga-Rankuwa, a settlement 37km north-west of Pretoria. She grew up to become the first black female South African to obtain a PhD in mathematics education on her way to leading a university.

It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom, safely, now.

“The most important tool every South African needs is affordable, quality education that will qualify them for employment or a university degree. This is the only way we can close the inequality gap in this country. This is a necessity not only for the university sector, but for everybody in the country.”

According to UNESCO, of all regions sub-Saharan Africa is one of the hardest places to be educated in the world. More than one-fifth of children between the ages of six and 11 don’t go to school; neither do one-third age 12 and 14. Worse still, almost 60% of sub-Saharan Africans aged 15 and 17 don’t go to school at all.

South Africa is no exception. Covid-19 has made it worse with an estimated half a million learners – the population of a fair sized city – dropped out of school over the past year and a half. Learners can beas much as 75% to a full school year behind where they should be, reported Unicef, in July.

The most vulnerable children are those living in informal urban and rural settings, now up to 750,000 not in school.

“The reality is that South Africa cannot afford to lose another learner or another hour of learning time,” said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF South Africa Representative. “It is urgent that we get every child back into the classroom, safely, now.”

What has been a saving grace for education has been the switch to blended learning where teachers work remotely through online, radio and TV. Both Stanford University and George Washington University in the United States run successful online high schools.

“Remote learning has been a lifeline for some children but for the most vulnerable in South Africa, even this was out of reach,” said Muhigana.

UCT is drawing on its own experience of remote learning in the pandemic to try to get the highschool online. Along with its partner, education technology company Valenture Institute, they intend to open two offerings to all students across Africa.

It comes at a cost. There is a fee based education direct to learners’ homes, at a cost of R25,140 ($1700) per year.

A second offering is based on a free, online, blended‑learning platform for all high school teachers and learners. The free curriculum is to be made available in ‘micro schools’ in places like libraries, church halls and community centres, with a trained mentor – not to teach, but to supervise learning.

“The aim is to change the trajectory of high school education in the country, particularly in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects,” says Phakeng.

Some critics think it may be too good to be true.

One of the foremost critics is another South African who, like Phakeng, came up hard school.

Jonathan Jansen, also struggled to educate himself in Apartheid South Africa and in 2009 became the first black rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. In 2014, he wrote a book: “How to fix South African schools”.

He believes that devices, data and skills to navigate online resources are simply out of the question for many children from poorer households.  

At first, Jansen was excited by the virtual high school, but after taking a closer look he was far from impressed. Among some of his chief complaints was an annual fee; which he claims puts it out of reach of low-income earners, like domestic workers.

“So let’s not pretend this school is for the poor or that it will bridge inequalities in society. It is a for-profit initiative that will only exist to the extent that there are margins the company can live with,” he wrote in the Sunday times.

On the other side of the chalkboard, the school has chosen an experienced educationalist, YandiswaXhakaza, as its Principal. Xhakaza is no stranger to educational startups having nurtured a school in Centurion in 2017. She was also the CEO of the national literacy organisation, the Nal’ibali Trust.

“Online education in our context will always come with its own fair share of challenges as a developing country. The digital divide is significant and we have to work around the digital barriers such as poor network coverage, data costs, access to devices and computer literacy to mention a few, says Xhakaza .

Xhakaza faced the consequences of unequal education as a young girl. The impact was so profound she has dedicated her whole life to finding effective solutions to high-quality education at scale, starting from the ground-up as an English teacher back in 2010.

She continued to invest in her education and now holds a Bachelor of Education (Wits University), Postgraduate Diploma in Management (Wits University) and a Master of Business Administration (University of Pretoria).

“I am delighted to be joining the UCT Online High School team pioneering such amazing work and I look forward to breaking barriers and working towards the accomplishment of something so deeply personal to me, a course I have been preparing my whole life to chart forth,” says Xhakaza.

“This is exactly the type of challenge I am excited about, because when we get this right, it will be a massive win for all of us.”

Innovation happening in Africa that hopes to disrupt school, but only will be able to reach 1% of the children. But maybe other entrepreneurs could come to the party.