Busting the myths about online schooling

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At the beginning of 2022, South African online schools, including many emerging platforms, experienced record-breaking enrolments. This is prompting the need for the government to develop and define a more mature, comprehensive policy framework for online schooling, which, in regulatory and practical senses, cannot be simply lumped in with “home schooling”. Like all other branches of online education, online schooling is not a marginal option but a full-blown mainstream solution for our digital future. 

Technology has the potential to solve intractable problems in education in South Africa and to deliver on the promise of equal education. Run-down school infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and having access only to local teachers with skills limitations is a scenario that goes on and on in so many South African communities. Meanwhile, youth unemployment goes up and up. 

Technology cuts right across the need for built infrastructure and having enough space and desks in a classroom. It connects learners in real-time to global curricula and educators, as well as improved and advanced ways to teach and learn. 

Today, a child living in a rural Western Cape town, such as Piketberg, can attend an online school and graduate with a CAPS, Independent Examinations Board or Cambridge-level school qualification, setting them on a clear path to tertiary education and a future where they are gainfully employed. 

This might not be common yet but the important point is that it is possible right now, thanks to the availability of online schooling. This is the extraordinary transformation in education that online schooling is bringing about, without the exorbitant costs of constructing and maintaining school buildings or buying a thousand desks and chairs; without waiting for the government to supply clean, safe water and without the need to upskill local educators so they can effectively deliver a globally-competitive curriculum. 

Free from geography, online schools open access to the rich, digital world of education to more children than ever before.

It’s a curriculum dumped online: Some South African families might have experienced this during Covid lockdowns as physical schools took emergency action, however, it’s not at all the blueprint for quality online schools. Online education has a distinct pedagogy which governs how teaching and learning happen optimally in digital spaces. The best online schools have teachers trained in this and they form a connected faculty in the virtual-school space that should draw on the best practices that bind any on-campus teaching faculty. 

Educators should be guides to the curriculum, supporting the learner’s journey all the way, pointing children in the right direction and stepping in with full support when a child is struggling to keep on track. Digital features enable advanced timetabling, goal-setting and performance-tracking so children, parents and teachers know exactly where a learner is in the curriculum on a daily basis.

It’s easy to skip milestones on learning trajectories online: The opposite is true. Top online schools, and the education modules they make available, are focused on the mastery-based approach. This means fewer learners are at risk of falling through the cracks compared to the busy physical class environment where teachers struggle to get everyone on the same page at any given time. 

Learners proceed at their own pace and are able to repeat lessons or segments of lessons until they have a mastery-level understanding of all of the content. In essence, their educational experience is tailor-made and individualised as online schooling eliminates the practice of “teaching to the middle” where both children who are ahead and those who are behind find themselves adrift.

Parents will have to teach their child: It’s true that home-schooling families are increasingly choosing online schools as their education providers – but this doesn’t mean that with online schooling parents will have to teach their own children. 

Online teachers have particular skills to facilitate learning on a digital platform. It is the professional teacher’s role to guide learners through the school curriculum and this does not change in the online environment. Parents should have the same role when it comes to their child’s learning whether they are in a physical school or an online school.

My child will not get socialisation: Parents need to choose a school, online or physical, that suits their values and aims for their child’s education and school experience. Socialisation at school comes through the intentional creation and maintenance of a high-engagement environment. There are physical schools that do well at this and others that don’t. 

The same applies to online schools. At Koa Academy, children come together in eight-person pods with their teachers which makes socialisation a key part of every school day. The result? Kids are learning how to be responsible, sociable digital citizens as well, which is preparing them for a world where our activities and work are increasingly digitalised.

The qualification is not equal or as robust: Online schools can offer the same curricula and recognised qualifications as physical schools. Like every aspect of our lives in these fast-changing times, schooling and tertiary studies are transforming and being disrupted by better ideas and improved tools. 

As parents, we are challenged to keep abreast of these developments and to recognise that our child’s education and further studies will, and should, be different from what we experienced. The world has changed, and continues to change, rapidly and dramatically, and it is the role of school to prepare our children for the real world they will encounter as adults.

We have to properly consider that we’re educating digital natives. We want to prepare them for participation and success in the real world — that’s the goal of education, no matter the era. Well, the real world for this generation, and those that will follow, is a world that encompasses a significant digital realm. Their education needs to include instruction, guidance and experience about how to be responsible digital citizens because their reality, and their future at work, will hardly be confined to the material world. 

An online, or blended, learning approach is appropriate and beneficial in these times and it is an advantage to South African families to have online school choices when they are making decisions about their children’s education.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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