Presenting the Case for Online Education

A small, independent Pretoria-based school presents the case for online education.

In a mid- and post COVID-19 world, the merits of online education are becoming increasingly obvious.

However even before the pandemic, the educational world was taxed by the need for new models. Technological advances in every sphere of life, and their rapid rate of impact on the world, means that many of the careers of the future have probably not yet been created. In this dynamic environment, the right kind of education for all children becomes critical.

A significant leap forward towards this future is offered to the students at the Online School – an independent institution based in Pretoria. These students not only receive excellent education, but also leave with an Independent Examination Board (IEB) accredited National Senior Certificate (NSC) matric qualification.

The 21st century student needs the kind of education that surpasses and transcends the confines of the traditional classroom. For many parents, the prohibitive costs of a high quality independent school education may be out of reach. The Online School not only bridges the gap between the present and the future, but also the gap between a world-class education and affordability.

The Online School’s academic gravitas is firmly rooted in the exemplary educational tradition of Hatfield Christian School (HCS) in Pretoria. HCS has been successfully educating students since 1985, with a history of outstanding achievement of IEB matric results.

The journey of the Online School started in 2009 when the principal of HCS, Graeme Holloway, began to toy with the idea of branching out into online education. The parlous state of education in South Africa; the apparently large pool of home-schoolers in the country, and the apparent need to diversify away from traditional classroom methods, all indicated the need for innovative solutions.

Practically possible

In July 2009, what initially appeared to be a mammoth task began to seem practically possible following exposure to a successful model operating overseas. Greg Bitgood, a Canadian, had been running a top-class online school in Kelowna, British Columbia, since 2001.4 He was invited to South Africa and proceeded to fan the flames of our curiosity in relation to starting an Online School as an offshoot of our brick-and-mortar school.

Over the years, with limited funding and great input from the then on-campus schoolteachers and others, a curriculum was developed. Initially uptake was limited: in 2010 we started the school with four students in Grade 10, and in 2013 had five students successfully write the IEB matric exam. By 2018, there were still fewer than 100 enrolments, but in 2019 we turned the corner and numbers almost doubled. At the beginning of 2020, there were just short of 200 students, but, by the end of February (before the impact of COVID-19), we passed the 500 mark. Since then, in part due to the momentous events of that year, applications have poured in and the current enrolment is 950.

In our initial phase, one of the initiatives we undertook at the Online School was to assist under-resourced schools with maths and science curricula, which were used by their staff cohorts to great effect. With the assistance of corporate sponsorship, schools were provided with laptops and the requisite software, and at the peak of the project, 50 schools were served in this way.

What’s a successful online school all about?

Online education is much more than delivering a web-based curriculum. It involves subject specialists engaging with, monitoring and tutoring students from a distance. These specialists employ a mix of structured daily lessons, weekly YouTube chats, Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts, as well as regular e-mail correspondence.

A high level of interaction between student and teacher is established. This means that a child never needs to feel alone in front of a computer screen. What it does require from students is a dedicated work ethic, and the ability to manage their time and schedule lessons and assignments efficiently; all skills that will prove invaluable in tertiary education and the adult working world.

The online system offers freedom, independence and accountability – but in a safe and stress-free environment – the home. Add to this the benefit of expert tuition from specialist teachers, and this option becomes a compelling alternative to the traditional classroom. As past beneficiaries of ‘regular’ schooling, most of us are all too familiar with the conventional campus school system and its challenges. Conventional schooling isn’t always the right fit for everyone.

The platform also lends itself to flexibility, indicated by another model that is proving highly effective – the small school with limited academic staff, but equipped with supervisors who coordinate the online learning activities in a traditional campus school environment. The school is able to maintain its individual ethos and co-curricular programme, but combines this with a first class academic offering.

Does online education work?

Our 2020 results were excellent. One of our students, Luke Griffin, achieved seven matric distinctions, all above 90 per cent, with near perfect scores in mathematics and physical science. Forty of the sixty-five candidates were full-time students, all except two passing, with 85 per cent gaining the opportunity to proceed with tertiary education. Griffin’s own words about his online experience are: [The] Online School has been brilliant all the way through. Although I was a remote learner, my teachers were there to support me every single step of the way. They were never more than a phone call, remote meeting or e-mail away. I never doubted that they had my best interests at heart. I’m so grateful for all they did for me, and with me.

How does online education work?

For the traditional teacher and parent, the question may arise as to how academic progress is monitored if one seldom sets eye on the student. The way we teach online at our school is as follows:

  • In all subjects, assignments/tasks are due on a weekly basis.
  • The online subject teacher marks and provides feedback.
  • This feedback information is available on the online platform Moodle5 for students and parents to view.
  • Moodle, the open source learning platform, offers various reports that can be used to indicate the student’s engagement with the content, time spent online, lessons accessed, videos watched and assessments completed.

What about the practical components of certain courses?

  • In subjects like life sciences and physical science, Grade 12 practicals are assessed when students meet their teachers face-to-face during contact sessions. Grades 10 and 11 likewise are taught the necessary skills in these sessions.
  • Oral activities in languages are also completed during this time.
  • So, by harnessing the tools of technology to the hearts of committed teachers, the Online School seeks to prepare young people for a complex and challenging future.