At the beginning of 2023, UCT Online High School fell under distinct criticism from media outlets who reported on claimed mismanagement and technical issues felt by students at the school during its first year of operation.
The University of Cape Town’s launch of the online school, together with partner international virtual schooling firm Valenture Institute, promised to be “revolutionary”, and it is the first of its kind in South Africa. The school offers online high school lessons at “low costs”, according to its website. Students can earn their National Senior Certificate from R2 195 per month, and adults can apply to earn their matric certificates for the same monthly fee.
This low price, together with the perceived excellence of UCT (often regarded as the country’s top university) attracted thousands of applicants. In 2022, the school enrolled 5 507 pupils, from grade 8 to grade 11, according to Independent Media, of which 4 483 completed the academic year.
An academic year marred by angry parents who have taken to the media to air their grievances with the school. They claim a bout of technical issues with the online aspects of the institution hindered their children’s ability to complete the school year.
These ranged from reports that some students could not access exam scripts during final examinations, reports that the online portal where students received vital information was not operating, some students received incorrectly marked assignments, and exam scripts that were sent in were lost, among others. One student even reportedly received exam results that belonged to another student.
Technical problems faced by UCT Online High School
We reached out to UCT Online High School about the technical issues they faced during the 2022 academic year.
“2022 was our first year of operation and it was inevitable that there would be some technical issues,” remarked a UCT Online High School spokesperson.
“We log, and respond to, all technical issues and have a team dedicated to responding to questions, concerns and complaints from our guardians and learners. Through the year as a whole, technical issues have affected only a small proportion of our learners and all were resolved timeously,” they said.
About the problems faced with online examinations, the spokesperson explained that facilitating exams online is already a complicated endeavour, because of the need to verify a learner’s identity and prevent cheating. A way around this is to make sure the exam is written during a small window of time.
Institutions like Unisa are infamous for having technical problems during their examinations, but it is important to remember that Unisa is a university and not a high school like UCT Online High School (OHS)
The spokesperson says that loadshedding, especially Stage 6 felt in the final months of the year, was a major hurdle in this regard, and is why some students could not access their exam scripts.
UCT OHS says it offers an appeal process for learners who were affected.
“Every learner had the opportunity to lodge an appeal based on any circumstances that compromised their ability to complete their examination and assessment requirements, and we encouraged guardians and learners to take advantage of this opportunity,” the spokesperson told us.
“Less than 3 percent of learners lodged appeals, the majority of cases have been resolved, and all appeals will be resolved by the end of this week,” they reassured.
The spokesperson noted that “if a learner fails to upload an assignment to the platform, or uploads an incomplete script, they automatically receive a provisional grade of zero” and “if an examination submission is deemed illegible, it also receives a provisional grade of zero.”
It was indicated to us that all provisional grades have to undergo a “five-phase moderation process” and that “Where appropriate, learners are given another opportunity to upload a missing or partial script, and further attempts are made to grade scripts which present legibility challenges.”
One of the main problems students and their parents faced during the last academic year was the marking of exam papers and assignments.
According to a report published by the Daily Maverick, both parents sending their children to the school and even some of the school’s teachers themselves called the marking standards at UCT OHS “appalling.”
This is because the marking of a majority of assessments and examinations was conducted by the private tutoring group Teach Me 2. According to two teachers, who chose to remain anonymous, assignments marked by Teach Me 2 showed a discrepancy of as much as 30 percent compared to a subsequent mark awarded by an actual teacher.
One teacher said, “the kids are being robbed, left, right and centre.”
Issues with third-party exam proctor app
Other issues faced by the school during the last academic year stemmed from the use of an unnamed third-party application to monitor and verify the online examination process.
However, this third-party app “requires a degree of competence,” according to the spokesperson. UCT OHS only realised after its first few months of operations that it needed to educate students and guardians on how to use the application.
“Based on our experience over our first months of operation, we realised that we need to do more to onboard our guardians at the beginning of each year, so that they can better support their children in using this aspect of online learning,” they said.
“As a result, we have introduced significant enhancements to our Guardian Portal, enabling guardians to monitor the progress of their learners in real-time, and will be providing guardians with a more comprehensive orientation at the beginning of this new school year.”
A real test
This year, UCT OHS expects to welcome its first grade 12 cohort, which will write their NSC exams by the end of 2023. The school is also expecting thousands more students than last year, with around 8 700 applications for the 2023 academic year.
When asked what steps the school will be taking to ensure that the previous year’s problems do not affect future students, the spokesperson explained that UCT OHS is making efforts into better onboarding of parents, as well as more structured learning paths.
“All technical issues that arose through our initial months of operation were resolved as they occurred. We will be providing new guardians with a more comprehensive onboarding process at the beginning of this new school year so that they can better support their learners in the online environment,” they said.
“Our Guardian Portal already provides all our guardians with far more real-time information about their learners’ progress than is available at any conventional school, and we will shortly launch a new Guardian App that will further enhance access to essential information.”
“We have also introduced a more structured learning path across all grades, with firmer deadlines for assessment exercises and assignments, which will enable our Support Coaches to intervene more effectively where there are signs that learners are falling behind.”
More information given to guardians may make it easier for students to access exam scripts in time during examinations, but if the school continues to make use of external markers that the school’s own teachers proclaim to be insufficient, more problems with unhappy students will surely continue to rise.
Despite its affordable nature, UCT OHS has a lot of work to do this year as it prepares for a major test in fielding its first matric exams (online) and almost doubling its student load. Despite reassurances that only less than three percent of students appealed for faulty examinations, no student wants their life derailed by technical issues, third-party apps or external markers.
[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]