The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied
The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied

An academy that bills itself as the world’s first global private online high school, which is right here in SA, accepted its first students in January 2020 — just before Covid-19 threw education into complete disarray.

The Valenture Institute is the brainchild of entrepreneur Rob Paddock, the creator of short course platform GetSmarter. Covid-19 was its first real test, but Paddock, its CEO, says the school didn’t skip a beat.

"If Covid has done anything, it has woken us up to the fact that there is a new set of demands and needs that education must meet," he says.

All its learning was already taking place online. "We were lucky that Covid didn’t change much for us; if anything, it just accelerated the work we were doing."

The Valenture Institute had the same number of learner applications between June and August 2020 as it did in the preceding nine months. If anything, that’s a major indicator of the need to shift to online learning, says Paddock. The school has three intakes per year: January, July and September.

It follows a UK curriculum and its GCSE qualifications are recognised by SA universities as well as global ones including Oxford, Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While classes take place solely online, overwhelming feedback resulted in it rolling out boutique campuses to supplement the online environment, at an additional cost. Its first campus opened in Cape Town and is registered with the Western Cape department of education.

The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied
The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied

Its second campus in Dunkeld in Sandton can accommodate 80 students at a time and will become operational in January 2021. The FM was invited on a tour last month. It has communal work areas, a lab, yoga studio, recording studio, recreational spaces, a canteen and grocery delivery services for parents.

But its online element remains its core product, and the school describes itself as "tech-enabled". What does that mean beyond online classrooms?

The school uses licensed software such as a learning management system called Canvas, Zoom for Education and Salesforce to manage its relationships. It has integrated the data from all three using its own software with machine learning capabilities.

"One of the greatest challenges in education is the lack of visibility teachers have as to how their students are performing daily. Unfortunately, we only recognise an issue towards the end of the term when there are high-stakes examinations, after which it becomes increasingly difficult to remediate the issues," says Paddock.

"With online learning, our sophisticated learning analytics tools provide all teachers and support staff with real-time data on the behavioural and academic activities of our students. This allows them to identify issues as they come up, and proactively intervene to get the students back on track."

The school also offers another benefit to students and parents who value an international link.

The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied
The Valenture Institute. Picture: Supplied

"Though you’re physically coming to a space like Dunkeld, you’re able to interact and engage with experts from institutions like Harvard or Stanford," says Paddock. "Why should we be limiting our students and their exposure to the people who happen to live and work in the region directly around the school campus?"

There are some other differences in its structure. For example, its curriculum for grades 8 and 9 is rolled into one, with six subjects completed over 18 months.

And how do its fees compare? Online-only schooling comes at a cost of R5,611 a month, or discounted by 10% for an upfront payment of R90,900 for 18 months. Students who want to make use of its Sandton campus will pay R7,110 a month, or R127,980.

By comparison, tuition costs for grades 8 and 9 at Village Montessori in Centurion (which also uses a UK-based curriculum) will set you back R250,670.

Paddock says his idea to found the institute arose from his obsession with how to scale quality education. "As a country, this is something we really need to think about. We’ve had a modality, a paradigm of education, which has remained largely unchanged for centuries."

Paddock co-founded GetSmarter in 2008 with his brother. It has taught courses to more than 200,000 students from 154 countries. He exited the business when it was sold to US company 2U in 2017.

Dunkeld Boutique Campus: Will become operational in January 2021. Picture: Supplied
Dunkeld Boutique Campus: Will become operational in January 2021. Picture: Supplied

He says the role of the teacher also needs to be revisited.

"Teachers in the conventional system are radically overloaded. They are expected to be curriculum designers, lesson facilitators, administrators, sports coaches, confidantes, social workers, and so on. We need to think about the different ways of effectively disaggregating the role of a teacher and reconstituting it with its component parts with experts in every single one of those fields."

But can public schoolers ever benefit from what Paddock is trying to do? He has partnered with the Western Cape education department to pioneer a new model of blended learning which is low cost. "Our first micro-classroom is in Mitchells Plain. The initiative is called the iBhodi Trust and seeks to create a new blueprint for scaling quality education to SA students who need it most."

As one of the few private high schools globally to offer an international curriculum, the Valenture Institute has students from around the world. Additional campuses are in development for London and Boston, which will open within the next two years.

And it recently secured investment worth R114m from venture capital firm GSV Ventures to help it do that.

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