The Opportunities And Challenges Of Online Schooling
In the past year, many of our daily activities have moved online – from shopping to studying. When schools closed during lockdown, parents found themselves scrambling to find ways of teaching their children via web-based channels. Online schools have become mainstream, with more parents considering this form of education.
As South Africa doesn’t have dedicated regulations for online schools, they are accredited in various ways, explains Sarah Ferguson, head of marketing and communications at Teneo School. “We offer two South African CAPS options for learners: Teneo Independent writes through the Independent Examination Board and Teneo Schools through the South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute. Then there’s our British international option, where learners write through Pearson.”
Ferguson says that having been started by an entrepreneur, Teneo is big on teaching entrepreneurial skills. “We offer a free extracurricular programme for Grades 7 to 12 called Converse Crew, where children can learn about how to set up a business, with presentations by guest speakers in the business space. Our Launchpad tertiary programme is aimed at matrics and those who’ve just matriculated and want to learn basic entrepreneurial skills.”
Jay Paul, business manager at Curro Online, says online education offers a more collaborative approach to learning. “There is a shift away from top-down teaching to a more interactive, collaborative approach whereby learners and teachers co-create the learning process. This education approach empowers learners to become active in the process of taking ownership of their learning experience.”
Of course, learning outside of a traditional school environment offers a certain flexibility in structure. Whether or not a child chooses to embrace that is up to their learning style, says Paul. “The model’s online material is created and taught by Curro teachers with a structured timetable in place for learners who need structure, as well as the option to be flexible for those who work well at their own pace.
“The timetable includes teachers initiating each class and guiding learners through preset material on the online platform.” Alternatively, more independent students can select the material that best suits their learning preferences and go through it themselves within an allocated time.
Curro learners do not study in isolation, but rather in small classes, says Paul. “They also have group projects assigned to them, where projects are done in small groups of four. Through such projects, they learn the skills of co-ordinating projects in the virtual work-from-home world in which we find ourselves.” He stresses that rather than relying on a rotating schedule of tutors, teaching is done by a dedicated Curro teacher per subject, per grade for the whole year. “The model entails live interaction whereby learners can ask teachers for help and also receive detailed feedback on their progress. This approach allows them to actively track the progress of the learner and intervene proactively when needed.”
Teneo follows a more traditional format, says Ferguson. “All our classes and lessons are live,” explains Ferguson. “It’s like a bricks-and-mortar school that has moved into the virtual space. Children log on at 7:45am and start class at 8, they have a timetable on our learning management system with the links to all their classes. They interact with their peers and ask the teacher questions.” Ferguson adds that rather than homework, there is independent study time built into the learning calendar.
Online learning is not without its challenges. In a country like South Africa, first among these would be connectivity. Paul recommends a line with a minimum download speed of 10Mbps and upload speed of 2Mbps, and at least a 50GB data
cap – well beyond the means of most South Africans. Internet costs remain a problem, says Ferguson. “We work with corporate sponsors and are in the process of setting up a foundation to bring learning to those who might not have access to it. We do anticipate internet costs falling in the future, however.”
Ferguson also acknowledges that the structure of online learning isn’t necessarily for everyone. “At a bricks-and-mortar school, for example, there’s a school bell, teachers nudging you along outside the classroom, discipline and teaching behaviour. All those extras fall away with an online school, so parents have to take on a more disciplinary role. On the plus side, that allows teachers to focus purely on education.”
Teneo school fees start at R23 940 per year, while Curro Online fees start at R41 950 per year.
Public online schools on the cards?
In January, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) announced that it was planning on opening public online schools. Director-General Mathanzima Mweli said a team led by ICT chief director Seliki Tlhabane was working with provinces and private education providers to establish policies and guidelines in this regard. But how feasible is such a plan?
“It was inevitable that a subdirectorate like the DBE’s ICT would make a suggestion like this; it would be rather strange if they didn’t,” says Sara Black, a policy analyst and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation.
However, even if we could restructure the economy and co-ordinate the necessary departments, Black argues that we probably shouldn’t. “Online learning is not a replacement for contact schooling. There are many reasons for children to come to school physically, including social engagement with their peers and the fact that schools around the world are a bulwark against the challenges of childcare in the home.”
Black says teachers are the adults who see children most frequently outside of their parents or primary caregivers. “When teachers see children through a screen, they miss out on important details about a child’s holistic wellbeing.”
Nevertheless, online remains a valuable resource to supplement contact learning. “There’s no reason why working-class children shouldn’t have access to the kind of exploratory learning they can do online, which is what a lot of middle-class children can do to engage their own interests that are not satisfied by the curriculum.”
In the short term, however, says Black, government should focus on utilising what it already has. “If we really want to reach students during a pandemic without bringing them into schools, the national broadcaster is how we should do it, not through private internet service providers and e-learning companies.”