Online schooling is a new and growing dimension of education and — correctly — many guardians have questions and concerns before committing their learners to an online school. This applies to policy-makers as well because changes in legislation and regulation are required to differentiate between different kinds of online learning and to ensure that quality standards are both appropriate and fully met. We welcome both the public interest in the education that we offer at UCT Online High School, and questions from current and potential parents, guardians and learners.
When we receive media enquiries we do our best to provide comprehensive and accurate responses that are supported by the evidence available to us. It was in this spirit that we responded to a set of thirteen questions from a journalist at Rapport, which resulted in a story titled Aanlyn skole: baie kinders gaan druip, published on Sunday 27 November by Rapport and City Press, and subsequently syndicated by News24.This story contains significant inaccuracies, misrepresentations and omissions and falls short of the standard of journalism expected from a leading news publisher. So let’s put the record straight.
Our responses and rebuttals fall into three categories: assertions about online learning; misrepresentations concerning UCT Online High School; and what was not said. We apologise, in advance — this is not a short read. But, as is so often the case, it’s the detail that matters in a world of misinformation, so please bear with us.
Assertions about online learning
The article starts by dismissing online learning as a lost cause, setting the tone for everything that follows, asserting that “many children who switched to homeschooling or online classes in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic are now so far behind academically that they have to drop to lower grades if their parents put them back into a regular school.” This is self-evidently disingenuous. COVID-19 disrupted schooling across the world, adversely affecting millions of learners everywhere. The effects on South African schools have been widely reported. Those schools that were able to make arrangements for learners to study online were forced to do so under extremely short notice, with inadequate preparation of learning materials and far from perfect technological support — extraordinary achievements under the circumstances. Many others were less fortunate, missing schooling altogether and falling up to two grades behind in their studies. To imply that emergency remote teaching that was offered during the COVID-19 emergency can serve as the baseline for evaluating the quality of online learning in the future is irresponsible.
Following on from this, the journalist claims that online schools have a higher drop-out rate than conventional schools, and that grades for online schools are, on average, lower than for traditional schools: “research done by the basic education department … shows that online schools have a higher drop-out rate and that grades are on average lower than at conventional schools”. This statement has been effectively debunked in a separate and independent response by our accreditor, the South African Comprehensive Assessment Institute (SACAI). In their news release following the publication of the Rapport story, SACAI pointed out that “online schooling in South Africa has only taken shape in the past 24 - 36 months. The research Rapport is referring to might therefore be premature without giving online schooling learners the opportunity to start (in lower grades) and exit the schooling system at Grade 12. …[the research]..might not be reliable due to the COVID-circumstances, it also cannot be compared with previous years in similar situations.” SACAI also pointed out that the drop-out rate of learners in conventional schools is already high. 250 000 school-going children in South Africa drop out of school every year and this figure tripled to 750 000 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, there is no credible evidence that, in South Africa, online schools have a higher drop-out rate or that grades are on average lower than at conventional schools.
Assertions about UCT Online High School
From these shaky foundations, the journalist focuses her attack on UCT Online High School. She claims that “parents are disappointed because they feel that the UCT online school created the impression that there would be live virtual teaching, whereas many of the lessons are pre-recorded”. This is simply wrong. We have not positioned live lessons as the core component of our teaching and learning model since launching the school, even though there is a degree of live teaching that is offered. The Rapport/City Press journalist had asked us about this, and Head of School Sipho Mpisane provided the following written response:
“We offer a combination of live sessions, pre-recorded content and online study materials. Moving to fully-live scheduled classes would significantly disadvantage a large proportion of our learners because it would, in effect, remove all flexibility for learners and their families to decide on the optimal study times across each of our weekly modules. It would also disadvantage many learners because of the almost-daily occurrence of loadshedding, discriminating against low-income families who cannot afford back-up solutions. Further, a combination of pre-recorded content and online study materials allows a more consistent standard of quality for some subject areas. For all subjects, we offer at least one live session a week and, for key subjects such as English and Mathematics, we offer two live sessions each week. These supplementary sessions allow our learners to engage with specific aspects of the curriculum that they find most challenging, and for our qualified Subject Specialists and Learning Facilitators to respond appropriately. In these sessions, key concepts in the week's module are discussed in more detail, and questions raised by learners prior to the session are covered.”
It is not clear to us why the journalist chose to ignore Sipho’s reply to her question. Instead, she turned for comment to the principal of another school in Cape Town, which has no connection with UCT Online High School, who says that “grades of pupils enrolled at the UCT online school are generally shocking. ‘It’s 20% for some subjects, even 0% in some cases.” But, of course, he cannot know this. UCT Online High School only opened in January this year and our first cohorts of learners are currently writing end-of-year examinations for the first time. There is currently no evidence for comparing our grades with grades from similar conventional schools; this evidence will only become available early next year, when we have completed all end-of-year assessments. What is “generally shocking” is that a school principal should knowingly contribute to publishing misinformation on such an important matter.
The journalist’s evidence is, in reality, anecdotal information about marks for some individual assignments, and there is no evidence that these are worse than marks for individual assignments in other schools. At any online school following the Department of Basic Education’s CAPS curriculum, some formal assessments have to be uploaded because the DBE requires that answers are handwritten. In our case, a mark of 0% invariably indicates that a learner has not uploaded their assignment. We review each and every instance of a 0% mark and provide additional opportunities to upload the paper if there is an acceptable justification. Ultimately, a 0% mark can indicate absenteeism, which of course occurs at any school.
What was not said
Rapport/City Press approached us with specific questions and we answered all of them in detail. Consequently, it is important to put on record what the journalist chose not to say about us. These omissions relate to two issues, both of which are clearly of interest to parents and guardians, and to anyone wanting to make up their own minds about the merits of learning online: why learners leave our school, and what mistakes we have made in our first year of operation (and what are we doing to put them right).
The journalist asked us this: “has there been a significant exodus of learners? What are the reasons given for learners leaving?” And Mr Mpisane responded as follows:
“The retention rate for our learners through the 2022 school year has been 80%. The majority of learners who withdrew during 2022 (61% of those who left) did so because they felt either that online schooling was not right for them or because they had found it difficult to adapt to the online learning environment. Within this group, explanations included the difficulty of keeping motivated while working online and the need for close learner supervision and one-to-one guidance. Some learners in this category also left because we have introduced a more structured term system and they had wanted the freedom to set their own pace throughout the school year. 6% of those who withdrew did so because they wanted the more social environment of a traditional school, and 6% left because they were unhappy with the workload expected of them, their progress through the year and their examination results. 13% of those who withdrew had been accepted into another school, and the remaining 24% left because they could not afford the school fees. 80% of our learners are expected to complete the school year and return in 2023.”
The journalist also asked us: “what mistakes have been made that will need to be rectified going forward?”. Mr Mpisane answered:
“Our mission is to provide access to education to all, irrespective of their social and economic circumstances, and the learners who have enrolled with us represent the full diversity of South Africa, from low income townships to affluent city suburbs. There are few precedents for what we are doing, and it has always been clear to us that we require a culture of continual improvement. Accordingly, we have identified five key areas for improvement through systematic data analysis and guardian engagement and, for each area, changes are being implemented in time for the beginning of the 2023 school year.
Firstly, we started the 2022 school year with a model that allowed each learner maximum freedom to set their own pace as they moved through the curriculum. This met the individual requirements of some learners; for example, families traveling overseas for sustained periods, giving a learner the opportunity to move ahead in the curriculum or catch up on work. But we soon found that a significant proportion of our learners were falling behind, putting them at risk of not completing the school year. Based on this evidence, we decided to introduce a much more structured learning model, grounded in a four-term structure, which we have successfully phased in and which will shape the 2023 school year.
Secondly, we overestimated the ability of our learners to remain engaged with the curriculum while studying online and without the physical presence of a supervisor or a parent. As a result, we detected that a proportion of our learners were not logging into our online platform frequently or long enough to complete the work required of them or were being distracted by social media. This is a well-known challenge for online learning everywhere and we have researched leading-edge international practices in improving online learner engagement, which have informed enhancements that will be introduced in 2023. These will include gamification and rewards for learners and guardians, a Guardian Mobile App that will help them play a more meaningful role in their child’s schooling.
Thirdly, we have found that our system of informal assessment has had unintended consequences for some learners. Informal, or “formative”, assessments are used to monitor learners' progress and to help them prepare for the formal tests and examinations that count toward the grade for each year. In terms of our initial, self-paced learning model, we had restricted learners’ opportunities for moving forward in the curriculum until they had achieved a sufficient level of competence in an informal assessment (an approach that is called mastery-based learning). However, we found that this requirement resulted in learners getting stuck and falling behind, putting them at risk of not completing their school year. Consequently, we have now modified our approach, allowing learners in this situation to move forward while, at the same time, enrolling in supplementary sessions and receiving focused support to allow them to overcome the barrier.
Fourthly, we have listened to learners and guardians when they have complained that our curriculum is too dense and demanding when compared to conventional schools. We are conducting a full review of our curriculum across all grades and all subjects and enhancements are being prepared ahead of the new school year.
Finally, we are introducing changes to our system of marking and moderating assignments and examinations. Marking and moderation online and at scale is, again, a well-recognised challenge and we are in the process of benchmarking our approach against international best practice. We have made significant improvements to our post-moderation processes and these improvements have been implemented for grading the end-of-year examinations that are currently underway. From 2023 we will be internalising all marking and moderation so that we can implement stronger quality controls.
Thank you for reading this far. We hope that this response has served to put the record straight. Whether or not to opt for online learning should always be an informed choice, based on a careful assessment of a learner’s needs and capabilities and an informed evaluation of the available options. In this, responsible, impartial, accurate and independent media reporting is essential.