The time is now for online high schools

The traditional education structure is changing, and virtual classrooms are providing a more flexible and dynamic way of learning

Valenture Institute is pioneering a new way of learning for high schools which may inspire a major change in how education is delivered.

Nadia and her uncle Sal Khan inspired an online education revolution in the world. It started with a visit to attend her uncle’s wedding-all the way from New Orleans to Boston, United States of America. During her visit to Boston, Sal discovered that Nadia needed further support with mathematics.

She was a straight-A student, highly motivated and always prepared but had just experienced her first academic setback. She had done poorly in a maths placement exam at the end of sixth grade. She was baffled by her subpar performance. It wounded her pride, her confidence and self-esteem.

She had accepted the outcome of the test. She believed that she wasn’t good at maths. Her uncle, Sal, had a different view, he saw potential in her. He thought that Nadia was just a victim of an education system that focused less on the individual but on a group. According to him she was logical, creative and tenacious. Sal thought that failing maths at sixth grade would jeopardise Nadia’s chances in the future.

He then arranged to assist her with maths remotely as Nadia had to go back home to New Orleans. As a stock trader in the family, he was in a better position to assist Nadia during her visit with maths learning sessions. After the visit, how would Sal continue to support Nadia with maths lessons?

A computer program called Yahoo Doodle and a few phone calls became a life-saver. They both used pen tablets that would allow them to see each other’s scrawls on respective computers using Yahoo Doodle. They would then schedule sessions to talk on the phone and figure out mathematics problems. This interaction between Nadia and Sal yielded positive results. Nadia went on to retake her math exam, and passed with flying colours.

At this point, Sal had more learners and also starting to experiment with other technology tools such as Skype and YouTube.

More than 10 years ago, this experiment by Sal later became what we now know today as Khan Academy. It is a non-profit educational organization created in 2008 by Salman Khan with the goal of creating a set of online tools that help educate students. The organization produces short lessons in the form of videos. Its website also includes supplementary practice exercises and materials for educators.

Fast forward to 2020 In South Africa, Robert “Rob” Paddock has taken this form of learning to another level with a creation of a new online high school. Rob is no stranger to the online education sector. He founded South Africa’s most successful online university platform, Get Smarter.

The rise of an online education is no coincidence.  The idea of an online high school is an idea whose time has come and is necessary for an industry that is still stuck in ancient models.

The current education is based on the old industrial system. According to Sir Ken Robinson  industrialism needed armies of manual workers for the repetitive and exhausting labour in the mines, factories, railways and shipyards. It needed more skilled technical workers in engineering and all the associated trades and crafts of mining, manufacturing, and construction. It needed cohorts of clerical and administrative workers to manage the new bureaucracies of trade and manufacturing. It needed a smaller professional class of lawyers, doctors, scientists, and academics to provide expert services to those who could afford them. Some industrial countries – especially Britain – had extensive colonial interests for which they needed an even smaller ruling class of diplomats, ambassadors, and civil servants to run the business of empire at home and overseas.

The purpose of industrial manufacturing is to produce identical versions of the same products. Items that don’t conform are thrown away. Systems of mass education which are still present today were designed to mold students  to certain requirements. Because of that, not everyone makes it through the system, and some are rejected by it as we can see in many schools in South Africa.

Industrial processes  demand compliance with specific rules and standards. This principle is still applied to education. The standards movement is based on compliance curriculum, teaching and assessment.

Industrial processes are linear. Raw materials are turned into products through sequential stages, each with some form of testing as a gateway to the next. Mass education was designed as a series of stages , from elementary school to high school to higher education. Students are typically organised into separate year groups and progress through the system in batches that are defined by date of birth. In most cases periodic tests determine who goes down which route and when.

Industrial production is related to market demand. If it rises or falls, manufacturers adjust production to meet it. Because of industry, economies needed comparatively few administrative and professional workers, the number of students admitted to universities was tightly controlled. In our times, the demand for intellectual labour has grown, and the doors to universities have flung open to increase the flow of graduates into the economy.

As in typical factories, high schools and higher education in particular are organised around the division of labour. In high schools, the day is usually segmented into regular chunks of time. When the bell rings, everyone changes task and starts doing something else instead. Teachers specialise in particular subjects and move through the day from class to class in separate segments. While these principles may work well in manufacturing products, they can cause all kinds of problems in educating people.

According to Rob, it stands to reason then that online education is ideal for our times partly because it is dynamic and can be personal instead of being general. He says, “my belief is that online school has more targeted solutions and flexible”.

It enables access to the best teachers and allows them to do what they do best, to teach. The current education model puts a heavy burden on teachers. Rob highlights the fact that teachers are overburdened and are asked to do too many things. He says, “we ask them to be curriculum designers, mentors, social workers, mentors, sport coaches”. This leads to the detriment of quality education. According to Rob, at Valenture Institute, the role of teachers is disaggregated. They get the best teachers for each subject and allow them to focus, which is what technology enables. When you get  them to focus then you get good results. In addition, each learner receives the attention they deserve partly because technology enables each learner to be measured and observed.

The founder of South Africa’s first online high school has not given up hope on human teachers. He believes teachers have an important role to play in the teaching process. He believes that technology enables teachers to focus on their core responsibility. Technology will serve as a tool that facilitates teaching thereby providing necessary support to teachers. At an online high school learners don’t spend all day watching screens, instead they are encouraged to join clubs and societies to engage in extracurricular activities such as sports, and arts to interact with other learners.

Valenture Institute is also experimenting with a physical space, in Mitchells Plain, that integrates digital learning for environments where it’s not possible to enable online learning only.

Valenture Institute is pioneering a new way of learning for high schools which may inspire a major change in how education is delivered.

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