Submitted by Stacey Brewer and Ryan Harrison, Co-founders
Note: The information in this profile represents SY2013 unless otherwise indicated.
Independent or Private School Network Overview
Independent or Private School Network Description
South Africa is one of the worst performing countries in the world when it comes to educational performance (Rated 143/144 for Math and Science according to the Global Competitiveness Report) and if the country continues to perform so poorly, the students will lack the skills to sustain the sizable GDP of the country. Spark Schools was born out of the need to create affordable, accessible, and high-quality education for all students in South Africa and is now one of the first schools on the entire continent to use a blended-learning model.
Blended Learning Program
Program model: Lab Rotation
Students at the school spend 75 percent of their time in classrooms for traditional learning modalities and they spend 25 percent of their time in an on-campus learning lab where they receive online content and instruction.
How much time do students spend on campus in this blended-learning program? How much of this time do students spend learning online or with educational software?
Students are required to spend 100 percent of their educational experience on campus and students spend approximately 25 percent of each school day learning online or with educational software.
Briefly describe the offline components of this blended-learning program.
For students, 75 percent of each school day is spent in classrooms with their teachers using offline learning modalities such as guided reading, teacher and child-led discussions, pencil and paper assignments and more. The school also makes time during the day so students can take physical education classes and learn a second language, which in this case, is Zulu.
How does this blended-learning program fit into the rest of the students’ school day?
Each class has its own unique schedule, but typically students start their day in an all-school assembly before they begin their classes. A typical school day includes 90 minutes of math instruction, 40 minutes of physical education, 180 minutes of literacy education which includes 40 minutes of Zulu education, and 90 minutes of online education in the learning lab. The time of day during which students go to the learning lab varies by class, but all students spend exactly 90 minutes per day in the learning lab engaged in online content and curriculum.
What are the teachers’ roles and responsibilities in both the online and offline components of this blended-learning program?
The offline role of teachers at the school is very traditional in the sense that teachers are responsible for face-to-face instruction, guided readings, mediating or leading group discussions, and assigning and grading regular assignments. At this point, teachers at the school have very limited input in the student’s online learning because teachers in South Africa are not generally very tech-savvy and the school employs additional professionals to help guide students’ online learning.
What other adults are involved in this blended-learning program (e.g., paraprofessionals, learning coaches, counselors) and what are their roles and responsibilities?
The school employs three tutors who work in the learning lab and facilitate and support the students’ online learning needs and questions. The school also employs an academic dean who is responsible for planning and executing the online portion of student education and the person also handles the data management and data analysis portions of the blended-learning program as well.
Briefly describe the set-up of physical space for this blended-learning program.
While most South African schools group desks individually in the classroom, at Spark Schools, desks and chairs are put together in groups, otherwise the actual classroom that students learn in is the same as a traditional classroom. The learning lab is a computer lab that currently contains 47 computers for student use. The computers are arranged in long lines because the school found it was easier for the learning lab tutors to keep track and stay on top of all the students in the lab.
How are students grouped within this blended-learning program?
Students are split into classes based on grade level with a maximum of 32 students in each class. These classes are put together randomly. Within the classes, the school groups students together based on competency levels and conducts weekly assessments with teachers to ensure that students are placed in the correct groups. In the learning lab, the bottom 16 percent of the class is grouped together so they can receive additional attention and tutoring.
Do students have some element of control over the pacing of their learning? Are students tied to a semester-based course schedule or can they complete courses at any time? Briefly describe any requirements or benchmarks in place to ensure student progress.
Students have some control over the pacing of their learning as the school sets a minimum requirement that all students must meet by the end of the term, but the school allows stronger students to move ahead to more advanced material if they complete the assigned requirements ahead of time.
Describe the academic results of the program, using quantitative data where possible.
The school has found that online learning most highly impacts the students with remedial and advanced needs. The power of the programs has been to allow struggling students to work at their own pace to master material previously covered in class and to allow advanced students to progress forward and preview information not yet covered in class.
In particular, the school has seen the impact of blended learning on its math achievement. Students take math benchmark assessments that measure progress during the year to the completion of our curriculum. Students should score a 90 percent or higher by the end of the school year. After the first term (quarter) of the school year, the students had achieved 48 percent mastery on average. All students grew substantially on the math benchmark, with some growing as many as 45 points, meaning that they demonstrated mastery of 45 percent more material in March than in January. What this indicates at a deeper level is that students are not simply learning math content; they are learning how to learn math content and have surpassed even what is taught in the classroom. In their time at the school, they have learned math not just directly from their teachers but through the blended learning model in small groups with tutors and on adaptive software.
Five months into the school year, the students have mastered their grade level national math curriculum, due in large part to exposure to more rigorous concepts on ST Math.
Describe any financial impact this blended-learning program has had on your cost of operations, use numbers when possible.
Adoption of the Spark Schools blended learning model has allowed for cost reduction in both the cost of infrastructure and the cost of human resources. Spark Schools estimates the infrastructure saving to be R500K per grade level deployed and the yearly operation cost saving to be R1.6 Million for a full school.
What have been the biggest obstacles in implementing this blended-learning program? What has needed adjustment along the way?
Firstly, blended learning and technology-based education is so foreign to the people of South Africa that school administrators had a difficult time convincing cautious parents that blended learning could be effective in a school environment. Also, the school has struggled to find high-quality online content providers willing to work with a South African school. The school believes that the best online content providers are based in the United States, and while the school has had talks with a variety of U.S.-based content providers, very few content providers would agree to work with the school, and those that did agree came at a significant cost. Also, the school has struggled to find literacy content providers that use the British form of the English language that is commonly used in South Africa.
If you would like to include any links to webpages with more information about your program (news articles, blogs, etc.), please enter them here.
Have you or are you planning to scale your program model to more/other schools?
Spark Schools plans to open 64 schools over the next 10 years and these schools would educate 64,000 students. Additionally, Spark Schools hopes to implement blended learning models into established and new schools in South Africa and the rest of the continent