Joe Makhafola sat down with Yandiswa Xhakaza, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Online High School Director and Principal. UCT is the first university on the African continent to extend its expertise and impact to the secondary schooling market through an innovative online modality. Before the first gunshot to start the academic year in January 2022, the school has already been selected as a top innovator by the World Economic Forum.

Launched in July 2021, UCT Online High School has been hailed as a pioneer that is going to turn physical limitations into digital opportunities for Africa’s children to access aspirational, quality secondary school education. Its purpose-built online school and free online curriculum pave the way for high quality, online, and blended learning to be delivered at scale, and stimulate the digital transformation of the education systems on the continent. The school is proud to be recognised as one of the 12 innovators that are transforming the future of education.

The numbers add up

Of the 400 submissions, UCT Online High School was selected as one of five in Africa and 12 in the world. Deloitte launched the World Class Education Challenge on the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform to search for innovators who are bridging gaps in learning and access.

The UCT Online High School ecosystem has been designed to service South African learners from a broad range of socioeconomic means. The UCT Online High School offers a CAPS-aligned curriculum and enables learners in grades 8 through 11 in any corner of the globe the opportunity to study at a fee of R2 095 per month, making it one of the most affordable private schools in the country. Grade 12 will be offered from 2023.

The school is currently hiring over 300 new staff members to help create the most impactful school in the country. The first enrolment will be 5 000 learners; add them all up and you get a sizable monthly revenue which would be required to employ the teachers, learning coaches, support staff, and more. Now, that is a notable impact on the education sector from one school.

Online glitch and robotic children

Just when we were conducting this very same interview, it happened, which was quite a ‘lol’ moment, as minor as it was. Glitches in IT are not uncommon. Recently, South Africa has experienced cyber-attacks that can leave you paralysed, the latest being the Department of Justice, which in a statement was described as ”drive-by downloading”, whatever that means, as the possible origins of the cyber-attack.

Virtual learning can be tricky sometimes. With distinctly less peer interaction, it can impact children with poor social skills and potentially create little zombies. They can’t pick the right friends or strike conversations in between classes and navigate through the social aspects that make us human.

Then we have another beast founded in 1923 at Megawatt Park who can spoil the fun through load shedding.

As if that’s enough, South Africa’s broadband speed has doubled in the past two years to approximately 14.1Mbps, yet it will take 48 minutes to download a 5GB movie. South Africa ranks 97th in the world, much slower than countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka, and a once war-torn Kosovo. Mother buffer.

”When I was approached by UCT, my major concern was that I don’t want a child sitting at home in front of a computer the whole day. If we don’t deliberate about building in those interaction points, we would be taking away the things that make us human, with human connection. My key objectives are to be quite deliberate about some of the compulsory meetups that need to happen. We are fortunate because we have data points, we know where registered students are concentrated. We are able to design interactive programmes in those radiuses regularly. Some of the group work would need to be done in person.

”The school intends to have strategic public and private partnerships to target underutilised spaces as meeting points for the learners,” Xhakaza says.

Closing in on bullies

South Africa is a violent country. Children have observed probably from their homes and neighbours that it’s okay to violate other people’s rights. Research shows that most children believe that when they report the bullying to an educator, nothing is done to stop it and this has added a burden for teachers on top of dealing with already anarchic children in the classroom.

These bullying little gangs often become violent and get involved in crimes when they grow up. Bullying has lasting psychological effects on both the victim and the bully. The online high school creates a safe haven for those who have been severely bullied in brick and mortar schools. UCT Online High School has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying, which includes cyber-bullying.

The death of Limpopo teenager, Lufuno Mavhungu, brought the effects of bullying and violence at schools into sharp focus. The Grade 10 pupil was laid to rest after a video of her getting beaten up and called names by other learners went viral on social media in April this year.

#StopBullying will not stop this carnage until the authorities thoroughly do their job for a change, and parents start taking the well-being of their children seriously.

Appalling education system

”Thanks to COVID-19, this is long overdue for South Africa. The world is shifting, we are being launched into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. People are already reporting to their managers in New York and Geneva while sitting in Alexandra and Tembisa.

”If you don’t have a computer or know how to work on a computer, you can’t form part of that economy. You are excluding yourself from where the economy is going. So, if we continue to see it as elitist, we continue to exclude ourselves from the world, and we will continue being spectators,” Xhakaza insists.

”The fact that no parent is watching over you, online learning will teach you self-discipline as a student.

”We have been grappling with this notion that students are just not ready and well prepared academically and socially, they also just don’t understand the behaviour one needs to have to succeed in a university. So as part of that plan, UCT has committed to effectively contribute to solving the problem by playing in the high school space,” she continues.

Xhakaza says that they are also deliberately contributing to the overall improvement of the dire state of our education system.

What is so special about the school?

”Our education is the key seller, it’s incredibly well done, the algorithms and the artificial intelligence is world-class, the curriculum is creatively laid out in a manner that is engaging and captivating for the learner to make it an easy self-learning platform. Our academics almost work like a personal coach and we provide feedback to parents on the child’s performance and behaviour. If students are allocated a task and the time spent on that task has exceeded the amount of time a child should spend on the task, it flags this on the teacher’s side for intervention.”

Xhakaza was asked to share what she understands to be quality education and what it is that we are not getting right.

”In a brick-and-mortar environment as opposed to an online environment, the system has disintegrated the role of a teacher into a teacher, an administrator, social worker, and a parent. At UCT Online School, a teacher is a teacher. Period.

”There is a team behind the scenes that worry about admin issues, assessments, and support coaches, who are trained psychologists, for the well-being of a child. It is a massive well-oiled machine.

”It’s simple things like the infrastructure, attending to broken windows and doors, debilitated buildings that don’t look like schools, they are not inspiring for the child’s well-being. NGOs like Equal Education have been fighting and making noise about the state of our schools in the country, as our schools are really in a bad state right now. I am not even talking about libraries in schools or flushing toilets in our schools,” Xhakaza says.

”We also have the ageing teacher population with old teaching methodology for a different audience. It’s not inspiring for young people. If you have a retiring teacher, you get a picture of what is happening in the classroom. The world has shifted so drastically that the type of a teacher we need today is significantly different.”

”Higher institutions of learning receive an influx of students in the first year and thereafter, the deficit in terms of their readiness for a university from an academic point of view, intellectually and socially, becomes the responsibility of the institution,” Xhakaza says.

If learners are studying online, they need to push themselves. No one is coming to save them. You are on your own. When a learner completes his or her Grade 12, they graduate into being independent beings before the start of university. They get into the habit of self-discipline easily.

A rose among the thorns

Commenting on the appointment, UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng says Xhakaza embodies what UCT as an institution stands for: building an inclusive society using the knowledge and resources that the university possesses.

”With her leading us on this journey, we will be building a more equitable and sustainable social order and influencing our young people from an early age to prepare them for the demands of higher education and society. Her experiences and passion are just what we need to make a success of the UCT Online High School, which is a key project of the university’s Vision 2030 and shows how we are committed to unleashing human potential across our society,” says Phakeng.

Xhakaza experienced the dire consequences of an unequal education system as a young girl. These inequalities left an imprint in her life so profound that she has dedicated her whole life to finding effective solutions to provide high-quality education at scale.

Starting as an English teacher in 2010, Xhakaza has grown tremendously and has continuously upskilled herself, traveling the world to learn best practices from other countries. She brings a wealth of knowledge, having started and operated a school in 2017 in Centurion, Pretoria. She is a prolific leader and comes from leading a national literacy organisation, the Nal’ibali Trust, where she served as the chief executive officer.

She holds a Bachelor of Education degree and postgraduate diploma in Management from the University of the Witwatersrand, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Pretoria. Her incredible operational skills and large-scale implementation capabilities are both sought-after for her new role as the school director and principal.

Xhakaza grew up in Butterworth, a small town in the former Transkei.

It was when she moved to Paarl in the Western Cape where she realised education was starkly different and to a larger extent, that bothered her. That is where the consciousness of quality education began.

Her mother is a housewife and her father is a businessman. She was raised by her grandmother single-handedly, who effectively became her mother.

Her grandmother was big on education, but of late, matters of the heart gravitated towards her grandmother’s soul who finally got married at the age of 67.

Xhakaza is family orientated and has time for close friends.