Online schools can be catalyst for education reform
Properly registered online schools could provide viable solutions to many of the challenges faced by South Africa’s education system.
These include high dropout rates, inadequate infrastructure, a shortage of schools and teachers, as well as the rising scourge of violence in local schools.
This was the word from participants in a discussion at this week’s launch of the Vodacom Group’s research paper, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, titled: “How digital technologies can transform education in Sub-Saharan Africa”.
The panellists − Jonathan Jansen, professor of education at Stellenbosch University, and Sipho Mpisane, former head of school for the University of Cape Town online high school − highlighted how the development of online schools can help fill the gaps in the traditional schooling system.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Education Fund, about 250 000 school-going children drop out of school every year in SA. This figure tripled to 750 000 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we think of the reasons why there are dropouts, it’s that there are things that happen within the home, within particular communities that make it difficult for learners to continue the daily commute or have the commitment needed to go into school and to remain in school. Online schooling is not the only answer, but it is part of the solution,” said Mpisane.
SA has seen an increase in reports of violence, bullying and initiation across schools in recent years.
According to Mpisane, online schools enable a safe learning environment, and allow students and teachers to set their own flexible learning pace, and the learning materials are also customisable.
High transport and tuition fees, and in some cases long walks to school, are additional contributors to the high dropout rates at local schools.
“It [online schooling] is not a silver bullet, but is part of what can be a very viable solution. The flexibility comes with being in the comfort of your home or community centre, where you don’t have to take a bus or taxi and have a very demanding daily commute. What if we made access to education closer? And support that by making sure the infrastructure is there, and we can begin to see a shift,” continued Mpisane.
Furthermore, online schooling equips students with essential digital skills, enabling them to navigate the digital landscape.
However, Jansen cautioned: “I don’t believe in online schools because it [allows] access to those who can pay and it takes away the one thing learners need, which is a physical connection to other learners and the teachers. We need to figure out how to connect learners, and that solution is hybrid learning.”
Online schools available in SA include the UCT online high school, Think Digital Academy, CambriLearn and Impaq. These online schools and others ensured learning continued during lockdown, providing remote access to education and flexible learning options.
“The pandemic had a critical impact on the school system by revealing what we already knew and that was the deep inequalities between schools that moved seamlessly to remote learning, to schools of the other extreme that had nothing,” said Jansen.
He noted that with the right policies, infrastructure and investments in place, digitalisation can provide new opportunities for Africa’s young people to enjoy a more equitable, sustainable and connected future.
“Addressing these obstacles demands political buy-in and support from governments to ensure the mechanisms put in place are appropriate in that they meet African learners and educators where they are.”
This week, education quality assurer Umalusi said it is concerned about the mushrooming of bogus online schools and cases of fake certificates sold to the public.
It stated it is working with the police on cases of unaccredited institutions that have admitted students into non-existing programmes. These sham institutions circulate fake Umalusi accreditation certificates, or fake e-mails purporting to be accredited by Umalusi.