The Valenture Institute (founded by Hubble Studios director Rob Paddock) and the University of Cape Town (my alma mater) recently announced the University of Cape Town Online High School (UCT OHS). Even with my daily immersion in both education technology and this project, South Africa’s animated and enthusiastic reactions to the UCT OHS have been both inspiring and exciting. In much the same way that the established, incontestable norms of work were cast aside overnight last year, the pandemic has perhaps transformed the notion of what the high school experience can and ought to be like. Inundated with a rapidly growing deluge of applications from eager parents, I can’t help but believe that the UCT OHS represents a fundamental change to school that’s both radical and somewhat long overdue.
Spend one minute listening to Rob describe his vision for UCT OHS and you’ll be left with a fervent belief that he’s doing more than transforming bricks to clicks by moving classrooms to Zoom and textbooks to Kindles. He’s spent much of his career designing ways to promote and celebrate the individuality in each learner and their learning journey, while anchoring those experiences in a sense of connectedness with some of the world’s most recognisable universities. And he truly believes that there’s good reason to apply those same principles to high school education.
The typical high school experience often seems diametrically opposed to how teenagers operate. It’s a disproportionately influential time in a person’s life where you try to align a fluid sense of self with an honest and informed view of a changing world as you try to make sense of how to form part of it. The overly normative learning journey often prescribed to high school students seems to conflict with that sense of evolving individuality; a point that is not lost on the Valenture Institute. Instead of aligning all students with a shared, regimented academic timetable, the curricula and supporting processes at the school have been designed principally around the learner to be amenable to their individual goals and abilities. Academic pacing is individuated and co-designed with learners and their guardians instead of being generically dispensed by the school. Progress is reviewed regularly and adjusted to capitalise on opportunities and adapt in the face of challenges.
Just as progressive and impactful in its design is a working and practical association with UCT itself. Nestled in the shadow of Devil’s Peak, the UCT campus surveys much of the Cape Town metropole. Yet despite growing up within sight of its red tiled roofs, I knew very little of what it meant to attend university until I was a newly minted fresher, and, even then, I wasn’t certain. I spent high school diligently working towards acceptance into a place I knew very little about. Matriculating and starting university were discrete events for me in every sense of the word. UCT OHS has been designed to engender a feeling of connectedness between its students and the university that didn’t even occur to me as a possibility when I started or even completed high school. Feeling in some way part of Africa’s most prestigious university from Grade 8 and enjoying opportunities to regularly engage with its academic leaders and researchers are brief but transformational experiences for a young person who is learning about themselves and the world beyond the school’s gate; which, in this case, no longer exists. Thoughts and perspectives towards life and plans after high school shouldn’t be reactive and characterised by the hurried and hesitant completion of a university application form late in Grade 11, but rather arrived at confidently at the end of a holistic schooling experience.
The singular achievement of matriculation masks a unique and varied learning journey that each student must navigate. Passed examinations and other significant milestones are arrived at through a tapestry of experiences, with parents, teachers, peers, and friends contributing in different ways and at different moments. And while trips to the local library and regular perusals of dog-eared textbooks have largely graduated to Internet searches and PDFs on tablets, it still takes a variety of perspectives and iterative reframings of both foundational and advanced concepts to engage each learner at their ability level in congruence with their learning preferences. A greater variety of teaching styles and educational modalities translates to a higher likelihood of success and promotes more equal opportunity to all. Foundational to UCT OHS is a free high school curriculum – supported by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and named Open UCT – that affords anyone with an internet connection access to Open Educational Resources (OER) derived from the expertly designed academic content available to UCT OHS students. Technology remains our most effective equaliser; exponentially so when used to connect South Africa’s youth with freely accessible academic content to help them in their own learning journeys, wherever they might be. On-demand access to a broad, searchable catalogue of relevant content will act as another curated resource for learners and educators alike.
It has been incredibly gratifying and humbling to bear witness to these transformative perspectives coming to life as my team at Hubble Studios worked with Valenture Institute to co-design the online learning platform that will help shape the school’s identity. The burdens of hard and challenging work melt away when those you collaborate with share your ideals and values and are striving to meaningfully advance access to world-class education for all South Africans. Our experience with the team at Valenture Institute has represented exactly that. Above all else, this experience has reinforced our value of long-lasting partnerships and our eagerness to connect with like-minded individuals and companies who share that perspective. If you’re planning to revolutionise online education at your university or aspire to transform your company’s e-learning strategy, we’d love to connect to explore how we can partner with you.
Ian Saunder is our CTO. You can find him on LinkedIn here.
Article by: Ian Saunder