Digital learning: what’s available and is it any good?

Together with several things ‘online’ we’ve got used to since the onset of Covid-19, online learning, hybrid learning and online schools are also on our radar. Marana Brand looks at what’s available and whether it’s any good.

Parents across the world were confronted with some version of online learning when hard lockdowns forced millions of learners and students into that space, whether attending in real time or in their own time and at their own pace via recorded lectures and emailed assignments. Since then, more and more online schools have entered the market in South Africa and many traditional schools have developed permanent hybrid variations of online learning.

And while parents may have been initially cynical about full-time online schools, citing valid reasons like lack of personal attention and social interaction, they now see advantages to online schooling.

Companies considering fully fledged online schools before Covid-19 had their plans thrust to the fore as the reality and opportunities of this space suddenly became apparent. Some of the prominent players in South Africa are UCT Online High School, Curro Online and Teneo Online School. Well-known Stellenbosch schools like Rhenish Girls’ High School, Hoër Meisieskool Bloemhof and Paul Roos Gymnasium have also upped their online learning game since the onset of the pandemic.

How it works

Online learning is not home schooling, nor is it merely ‘school on Zoom’. Most online initiatives follow a so-called blended approach, which is a mix of face-to-face online or in-person classes, lectures and extra classes; self-study; and an online platform that can include recorded lessons, quizzes, explanatory videos and other learning material. In the case of UCT Online, this material is free to all, including non-UCT Online learners.

All online initiatives give learners extensive access to quality individual academic support. The online schools mentioned here all have full-time dedicated teachers.

Fully fledged online schools use technology that tracks everything their learners do in real time – how long they’ve been online, what work they have completed, what they struggle with – and can respond immediately to remedy the learners’ shortcomings. Regular online quizzes and tests further build a learner’s educational profile. Most of this information is available to parents, so they have a clear picture of their child’s progress at all times.

Generally speaking, mathematics, science, English and subjects like robotics receive much of the focus, while emphasis is given to the development of critical thinking skills.

These schools have online clubs for social interaction and they encourage learners to join local sport clubs or even local schools for sport and other extracurricular activities. Learners also meet in virtual rooms for academic work like projects and discussions.

Different approaches

The University of Cape Town (UCT) started preparations in earnest last year to open the UCT Online High School’s virtual doors to more than 5,000 learners in January 2022. These learners work at their own pace. Every day, they access a digital platform where a personal dashboard displays their progress in different subjects. Teachers see the same dashboard and can respond to learners’ needs in real time.

Private school group Curro, which had been dipping its toes into online learning long before Covid-19 with its Digi-Ed Schools, opened Curro Online in the middle of 2020. Curro Online is a ‘traditional’ school with dedicated, full-time educators teaching the same learners per grade for the different subjects. There are no more than 25 learners in a class and they stay together for the whole year.

Launched in 2018, Teneo Online School, catering for primary and high school learners, was already in business when the pandemic hit, but has experienced enormous growth and now caters for about 8,000 learners. It covers several curricula from Grade R to Grade 12.

Some players in the online learning sphere can accommodate many more students, as they follow a webinar-type approach.


The online option affords parents a lot of flexibility to live – or travel – wherever they want to without interrupting their child’s education, says Jay Paul, Curro Online’s business manager. They only need a computer and a good internet connection. And their subject choices are basically unlimited.

According to Teneo CEO John Shaw, learning outcomes are better in an online environment and learners receive an education tailored to their capacities. Negatives like bullying are eliminated this way, he points out, while technology allows for a transparent process and easy parental involvement.

For UCT Online’s director and principal, Yandiswa Xhakaza, the huge network learners build with others is a big advantage. “They will know how people think and behave in other provinces and countries and can communicate with them in real time. That’s unique. Learners’ perspectives of the world will shift at a much younger age. That’s a big deal for me.”

“As a school we strongly support the use of technology, which can also help children who learn in different ways,” says Dr Rika Kroon, deputy principal of Rhenish Girls’ High School, which follows a blended learning approach. “For this generation, technology
is a given. If we’re not reaching them with the medium in which they think and communicate, we will lose them. The idea is to use technology to develop learners who are critical thinkers, who know how to analyse information and not believe all sorts of nonsense. It’s about tech and information literacy.”

Jay Paul (Curro Online), John Shaw (Teneo Online School) and Yandiswa Xhakaza (UCT Online High School). Pictures supplied

Better education to more children

Accessibility to quality education for more children, especially those in remote areas far from good-quality schools, is probably the biggest advantage. “We need to get education right in South Africa. With an online school we can reach many more children and their lives will change for real. That’s exciting,” says Yandiswa.

UCT deals first-hand with the implications of a fractured basic education system, she adds. “Every year there are massive gaps between school and university standards, resulting in a high drop-out rate, and every year the university has to spend thousands on bridging programmes. We want to improve the quality of first-year students we and other universities receive.”

Not a magic wand

In reality, unfortunately, thousands of children who have little or no access to good education still can’t access these online schools, despite their reasonable fees. “We quickly realised computers and computer literacy are not a reality everywhere, that Wi-Fi
is not widely accessible. There are a lot of limitations,” Yandiswa adds. UCT is looking into solutions for more widespread internet connectivity and to zero-rate digital access to their offering.

Rhenish investigated the possibility of an online school called Rhenish Connect, says Rika, who did her doctorate in 21st-century teaching. “Our proposal was accepted by the Western Cape Education Department, but as a government school we can’t afford to reach the child we actually want to reach without considerable outside investment.”

To solve problems like the lack of internet connectivity and computers will require a massive public-private partnership, John points out. “We need enormous will from the public sector and much investment from private companies. This needs to be fast-tracked. We have a huge unemployment problem in South Africa and it is rooted in bad education.”

Dr Rika Kroon (Rhenish Girls’ High School) and Winnie Viljoen (Hoër Meisieskool Bloemhof)

That human touch

Even where enough resources and connectivity are available, the online environment does lack another important element: physical interaction with educators.

“We believe online learning should definitely be part of education. It has made the curriculum more accessible and the many resources available to educators and learners are of great value,” says Winnie Viljoen, Bloemhof school’s deputy principal. “We don’t, however, believe effective learning can take place using online learning only. There’s something about ease of communication that is lost in online teaching, even when it’s interactive.”

“Physical interaction with teachers is the best,” agrees Jay. “There’s so much that comes out in body language in class that’s not possible online. In school you can notice them walking in the corridor and see, hang on, this kid is not doing well today and act upon it. On camera, learners can hide a lot. A good physical school is where a learner’s emotional, physical and intellectual needs are all looked after very well.”

Also in terms of children grasping concepts, online may not be ideal. “Educators can pick up in class, with the students in front of them, if a concept has been grasped. We prefer that our learners attend classes physically, as it has proven to be more effective. Most of them have indicated that they would rather be at school,” remarks Winnie.

Teachers can easily get bogged down in all the educational apps and material, adds Rika. “We should never forget the basics of what makes good teaching: the teacher-
learner relationship. Technology can give you diagnostic feedback on where dilemmas are, but the teacher still drives the learning and must decide how to solve the dilemma. That is true teaching.”

Making friends…or not

“Young people shouldn’t be isolated completely. Any school will tell you that the current mental health problems among teenagers are next level,” Rika continues. “That’s because their normal social interaction was disrupted by Covid-19. We have loads of data about the psychological impact it had on our children, as we regularly sent questionnaires to learners during the lockdowns. A small percentage of them function better online because they experience the normal school environment as stressful, but it’s not good for the average child. I’m not a big supporter of permanent online learning.”

The online environment can be tough on learners who need to interact with other learners all the time, Jay agrees. “We have to admit we will never have the same level of physical interaction between learners as in real school, even if we organise sport and encourage participation in extramurals.”

One way to counter this is greater parental involvement. “Parents have more responsibility than in a brick-and-mortar situation,” he adds. “If a parent can’t dedicate some time to a child’s learning, then a physical school is best.”

“Children also need to be physically active,” says Yandiswa. “The kid is sitting all day, so the parent must be deliberate in encouraging exercise and exposing their children to everyday life. Online learners often miss out on what’s going on in the physical world outside,  simply observing their community and meeting other people around them when going to school, for instance. The role of the parent includes the usual: encourage your child, check in with them; it’s not academic but they should stay involved.”

What’s next

While much research still needs to be done and teachers’ training has to be adapted to include technology, good online schools are here to stay. It’s inevitable that physical schools will have to use more technology and strengthen and diversify their online learning initiatives over time.

“We simply can’t ignore the developments in education and online schools will be the norm in future,” says Jay. “Children are so tech savvy today, they simply fly in this environment.”

He says feedback Curro Online has received so far from parents is that they never want to go back to a physical school because of the flexibility online affords. They especially appreciate “the closeness they have developed with their children since, and that is priceless”.