Mamokgethi Phakeng | Closing the gap of the two South Africas we live in

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To close the vast gulf between the two South Africas, every citizen needs affordable, quality education that will qualify them for employment or a university degree. Photo: Johnny Miller / Time Magazine
To close the vast gulf between the two South Africas, every citizen needs affordable, quality education that will qualify them for employment or a university degree. Photo: Johnny Miller / Time Magazine


We live in two South Africas.

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande celebrated one South Africa in June last year, when he told the fourth industrial revolution virtual conference:

I am always filled with hope for the future and for our country when witnessing the creativity, adaptability and devotion of people making use of innovative and interactive technologies.

Sadly, this South Africa represents a very small proportion of the country. According to some calculations, more than 80% of our mathematics or physical science distinctions are produced by pupils from only 200 of the country’s top high schools. Teachers in the other 6 476 high schools simply lack the knowledge and skills to teach these subjects successfully.

For every 100 pupils who start school, it is estimated that only 60 will make it to their matric year, 14 will qualify for university and six will earn an undergraduate degree within six years.

The result is the other South Africa: the millions of people who cannot qualify for employment, much less participate in the fourth industrial revolution.

To close the vast gulf between the two South Africas, every citizen needs affordable, quality education that will qualify them for employment or a university degree.

This is especially important in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – the sectors where we need African creativity and innovation to help lead the changes that the fourth industrial revolution is bringing to the world.

As early as 2018, the University of Cape Town (UCT) recognised that the fourth industrial revolution would disrupt our lives. It has already changed how we bank, shop and book travel tickets. We concluded that the best way to succeed in the fourth industrial revolution was to help lead the disruption.

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The UCT’s Vision 2030 is our commitment to find new ways to approach South Africa’s complex problems and to unleash our country’s human potential to create a fair and just society. To do this, we need to change the way our high schoolers are educated.

To meet the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, high school pupils need five key educational supports:

  • They need to be able to advance at their own pace, whether that means racing ahead of the class or taking extra time to fully understand a difficult concept;
  • They need to master the foundational subjects that will help them in university or a job – especially in science and maths;
  • They need personalised attention from teachers and coaches who keep track of their progress and offer extracurricular activities to develop their social and teamwork skills;
  • They need to develop the grown-up skill of self-discipline; and
  • They need to become familiar with different modes of working online.
We have negotiated with the basic education department to help government schools work with a new education model that is based on these five pillars, along with a full curriculum that will be available as an open education resource throughout the country.

This means all pupils will have free access to engaging and interactive content for 10 subjects in Grades 8 and 9, and 14 subjects in Grades 10 and 12.

All these will be organised in a self-paced curriculum where they can progress at their own pace, using expert-designed interactive notes, interactive videos, animations, simulations, practice assignments, quizzes and more.

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Pupils will receive instant feedback after completing computer graded assignments. They can connect to a virtual study buddy and co-learning pods, as well as community academic support on discussion forums. The interactive content is intuitively organised, easily searchable and most of it can be downloaded for offline access.

Government schools can incorporate the UCT Online High School ecosystem into teaching plans from early next year. The curriculum supports differentiated instruction to accommodate different levels of pupils’ ability.

It is designed to ensure that pupils have mastered key concepts before they can unlock the next learning module – thus building a strong foundation of knowledge.

Pupils can engage with a variety of learning components in different teaching methods to suit their learning preferences. In addition, the UCT Online High School will open one of the most affordable private schools in the country, with an annual fee of about R25 000.

To make it accessible to all pupils, including those from disadvantaged communities, the UCT Online High School is pursuing partnerships to not only subsidise the fees, but also establish a countrywide series of blended learning micro schools.

These micro schools will serve pupils who need the safety of a physical space as well as access to reliable hardware and internet connection to complete their studies.

Each micro school will support Grades 8 to 12 with a curriculum that is aligned with both National Senior Certificate and the Independent Examinations Board.

They will be staffed by exceptional teachers and caring support coaches – all trained and experienced in providing the right types of intervention for each learner, based on data and evaluation.

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Pupils will be able to participate in daily home room sessions, weekly assemblies and a range of extracurricular clubs. In a highly effective micro school pilot project in Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, run in collaboration with the Western Cape education department, pupils jumped an average of three grade levels in maths, science and English during the academic year last year.

Admission for the UCT Online High School opened on July 21, with classes commencing in January next year. Afterwards, pupils can enrol any time, from anywhere in the world.

The UCT Online High School has been created in partnership with Valenture Institute, a new start-up in the online education space.

Like Nzimande, we believe in the creativity, adaptability and commitment of South Africans to help shape not only technology but also the arts, literature, drama, business, law, governance, administration and more.

This is how South Africa can create true transformation – by grasping this opportunity for every pupil to receive an excellent education that will prepare them to achieve their full potential to make a difference in their lives and in the world.

Phakeng is vice-chancellor and principal of the UCT


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