25th February 2024 11:47 am
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“Virtual schools” could mean the difference between passing and failing

Every year, thousands of South African children miss out on being placed in schools. Derailing their educations.

This issue is caused by multiple factors, including the migration of people from rural areas and peripheral cities to major economic hubs like Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. The current estimate sits at around three out of every five South Africans are living in one of these provinces.

“Often, this results in there being too many learners and too few teachers and resources, forcing schools to stop accepting pupils,” says Dr Corrin Varady, pictured in the header image, in a press release sent to Hypertext.

Varady is the CEO of IDEA, a Microsoft education partner that offers STEM education for children from grades 4 to grade 12 as well as ICT and digital skills to adults and corporates via its digital and online platforms.

Why some learners go unplaced

This massive influx of learners can also promote provinces like the Western Cape, to rush to build new schools and infrastructure.

“However, this can place pressure on schools in terms of catering for so many pupils in such a short timeframe which can have an impact on the quality of the education provided,” he points out.

The country’s economic hubs have invested millions if not billions on digital infrastructure to ensure that as many learners as possible are placed. Gauteng opened its online registrations for the 2024 academic year in June, espousing a series of upgrades to the system that has to handle hundreds of thousands of learners and their data.

Gauteng’s provincial education department was forced to improve its system after more than 1 000 pupils did not get placed across the province by the time classes started this year.

“It is therefore clear that we cannot continue on this same trajectory should we wish to improve equal access to quality education,” says Varady.

“With the country’s population continuing to increase while the number of teachers continues to decrease, the situation is only going to deteriorate unless we have a scalable technology solution in place.”

Virtual schools can make a difference if deployed correctly

Varady says virtual schools, if deployed by the public sector – such as with low- or no-fee government schools, could rectify the non-placement issue.

These schools can help to mitigate challenges fuelling the country’s learner placement predicament such as overcrowding, teacher shortages and lack of adequate school infrastructure, while also improving learner outcomes.

Citing research from the University of Stellenbosch, Varaday says that because of over-booked schools, around half of South Africa’s public schools have more than 40 learners. While 15 percent have classes exceeding 50 students.

“The higher the learner-to-teacher ratio, the lower the personalisation of the learning experience. This, in turn, negatively impacts learner outcomes.” 

The technology of “virtual schools”

Virtual schools make sure each student can learn at their own pace, often with institutions crafting personal learning paths for children, which can be followed daily through digital media.

“However, the technology used in the virtual space helps to personalise learning so issues can be addressed immediately when the learner encounters them – not after they’ve completed their end-of-year exams when it is probably too late. Access to this technology could therefore mean the difference between passing and failing,” he highlights.

We recently asked if class size matters when it comes to online learning. The University of Cape Town Online High School believes that the number of students in a virtual classroom only matters when it can influence the price of school fees.

Independent research, however, found no correlation between class size and student-teacher interaction when it comes to online education.

“Technology equals accessibility which equals outcomes. We must connect education and technology so that no learners go unplaced,” says Varady.

“This is imperative for the country’s future, especially as 36,1% of our young people are not in employment, education or training, with this number set to increase. Education has the power to change lives and all children deserve access to it,” he concludes, citing Statistics South Africa (PDF).

[Image – Provided]

Luis Monzon

Luis Monzon

Journalist. Covering education, AAA gaming and consumer tech. Reach me at Luis@htxt.co.za.

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