A new kind of learning

Grade 9 Beacon Hill High School pupils Lukmaan Theunissen and Ryan Reddy, navigate their way through interactive online classes.

Beacon Hill High School pupils are pioneering blending online and regular schooling.

Three days after the national Covid-19 lockdown started on Friday March 27, each of the Beacon Valley school’s 28 Grade 9 pupils received a laptop and data to complete an online school curriculum at home, which they started in February at school.

Principal Greg Kannemeyer has applied for a concession for these digital class pupils to return two weeks earlier than their Grade 9 peers in the Western Cape, on Monday August 17, more than four months after the lockdown was implemented.

He said it was a public-private partnership, whereby the non-profit IBhodi Trust provides pupils the tools and infrastructure to learn via interactive online sessions with the Valenture Institute, a global private online high school.

“They know about the pupils’ challenges and give psycho-social support. They went to pupils’ homes, where they would ensure they have meals so they can continue their schooling,” he said.

Before lockdown they would work in a computer lab, sponsored by IBhodi Trust, and the lessons were presented online.

“I am proud to be part of this set-up and show how education needs to happen in South Africa,” he said.

He said the only difference between the digital class pupils and their peers was their learning method.

Mr Kannemeyer said the online set-up taught them discipline, self-learning and time management. He said if every pupil was given the necessary resources “no child would be left behind”.

Grade 9 pupil Ryan Reddy, 14, from Eastridge, said it was not hard to adapt to learning online and learning at home.

“I wanted to learn new things and better my education,” he said.

His mother Carmen du Toit said the programme was a “godsend, a positive thing” at the right time. She said her son was more eager to learn, complete assignments and group work and had not missed a day of school since lockdown.

“He is excited and spends more time with his school work now. It is not getting him down and his results for the past two terms show he is doing very well. ,” she said.

She said pupils were willingly putting in extra hours and asked their online teachers, if they did not understand.

“I think it is wonderful. The Valenture teachers are very hands-on and the pupils have asked them for extra hours if they are struggling. Their work is slightly different to the normal school curriculum. They are taught life skills and practical everyday topics like human rights,” she said.

The partnership between the institute, trust, school and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) is a prototype, set to create a blueprint for delivering affordable quality “future-fit” education throughout South Africa.

Robert Paddock, chief executive officer of the institute, said the school was recommended by the Principals Academy Trust (PAT), a programme provider for the development of effective education leadership and management in public schools, based on Mr Kannemeyer’s involvement.

Mr Paddock said the lab provided a safe learning environment and allowed pupils to “blend” with their peers at school.

“Beacon Hill was not seen separate from its community, Mitchell’s Plain. So, we saw the school as a safe haven for them to be mentored,” said Mr Paddock.

He said parent participation and interest in their child’s academic life was crucial to make the project succeed.

“We are grateful to Mr Kannemeyer, an incredible leader, who is such a beacon of hope for the school,” he said.

Thomas Wrigley, iBhodi Trust project lead, said the prototype would prove that without increasing the cost of teaching, the number of pupils to be taught could increase to equal or better the current standard of education.

He said the pupils were familiar with cellphones but 90 percent of them had not used a laptop before.

Mr Wrigley said they had some teething problems to set pupils up at home and that some of them were struggling to keep up.

“While pupils continue working from home, we will continue implementing stronger monitoring and management tools to help students better self-manage and remain on track,” he said.

He said the model was a continuous fast development process, which they would review fed by research and evidence-driven feedback loops.

“We have seen our pupils grow in leaps and bounds over the past quarter. There is incredible potential in each one of our pupils and each one has a unique story, set of abilities and interests,” he said.

Bronagh Hammond, communication director for the WCED, said they were excited about the initiative and that they needed a digital approach to deliver the curriculum during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

“The world has already shifted into a digital landscape, and we need to encourage our schools and teachers to embrace it,” she said.

Ms Hammond said a blended approach to learning was under way at various schools.

This model has shown the province how useful digital learning can be during lockdown.

Pupils were able to “keep up with the curriculum”, from their homes, while still visiting their classroom spaces.

“Initiatives such as this are also important to reduce the inequality gap. The success of the pilot will determine how this is replicated elsewhere in the system,” she said.