First principal of UCT’s online school does not want ‘robot kids’

Johannesburg- Yandiswa Xhakaza, who was head-hunted to be the first principal and director of the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s online school, first turned down the offer.

Having just been appointed as CEO of the Nali Bali Trust, she didn’t want to contribute to a world of “robots” children learning only from their bedrooms with no social interaction.

“I said I wasn’t interested. But their persistence was linked to my vision for education in this country. My initial reaction was online? It was not appetising. Part of being human is connecting with other humans, in building relationships, being rejected, choosing the right friends, this was my main concern. Algorithms and artificial intelligence and everything else was excellent. In my discussions with UCT, I said we need to be deliberate about the human aspect otherwise we will just create robots – people who don’t know how to be empathic, insensitive people who don’t know how to deal with others.”

Consensus was reached and a model was developed in which human interaction will prevail.

Having grown up in Butterworth, Eastern Cape, Xhakaza said she wasn’t exposed to affluent schools in her foundation years. But she said it was the best in the area.

She grew up with her grandmother because her biological mother had her at a young age.

“She became my mother and was my inspiration on how to do life as a woman. She wanted me to get into an English medium school. We applied and tried all the tricks in the book but I fell outside of that radius. I then went to a local primary school, a Xhosa medium school.

“Retrospectively I am grateful for that because I speak, read and write very well and would not have been able to, had I gone to an English medium school,” said Xhakaza.

Grade six saw her moving to Paarl, Cape Town, where her father stays, to a Catholic primary school. “It was a cultural shock. Surprisingly, I got the top-performing achiever award for the year. I thought I came from this disadvantaged school to a school that was far better. I was plunged into an English medium school, and I still did well.”

This sparked her research at university level into the science of the effectiveness of home language instruction, which she said proved that transitioning from one language of instruction to another could be done with ease by children.

Paarl Girls High was her next adventure. But Butterworth saw her again in grade 11.

“It broke my heart. Coming from Paarl school, I felt how is this the best for the people of Butterworth. It left an imprint in my life and I committed the rest of my life to solving that problem,” she said.

In 2017,  she was roped in to develop the Arrow School in Centurion, between Midrand and Pretoria. “The mandate was to reimagine education; what can we change to resemble the modern era we live in. The world has shifted so much yet education has remained stagnant. Some of our schools are war zones.”

After extensive travels to developed countries such as Finland, she said she returned with a passion to implement her research work, designing a different education model, classrooms, hire teachers and put down policies. She said they had to adapt how the school operated from meals to school time and extra-curricula activities.

“We had to meet parents halfway. It was impactful work that I really enjoyed. It was affordable and high quality.”

She said with the university capping the number of learners at 5 000, they would enforce deliberate hook-ups from meetings, chatting, group work as part of the programme.

“Where there are learning centres near where they stay, they will be encouraged to go once a week to interact with other students,” she said.

Xhakaza said although there’s an influx of online schools, UCT was a brand and is taking the right step into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

“The brick-and-mortar modality served us for the second and third industrial revolution. The world of work that we are preparing our children for is online. The new world order. The market has shifted. Anyone who doesn’t see will be left drastically behind. I’m glad there are more schools coming in,” she said.

Her goal is also to integrate online gaming into the curriculum and take on Shanghai, which has a multi-billion gaming industry, for tournaments.

On Thursday,  the university also announced that the online school was selected among the 12 Top Innovators in The World Class Education Challenge at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2021.

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