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Remote work. The girl is sitting at the computer and looks at the screen. A tabby cat sits next to me.

As COVID-19 struck, schooling went online. Our private home-schooling Academy did, too. We had to adapt to new educational technology and test what worked or not in the South African context.


After teaching in-person at different institutions across the world since 2003, we have since conducted hundreds of small-group (2-7 learners) live online classes, dealing with multiple curricula and at different grade levels.


On a regular week, our team handles online home-schooling learners enrolled for:



Subjects offered include Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, History, Law, English, Afrikaans, Economics, Business Studies, Accounting and Computer Science, each with its own teaching requirements. We teach live, online, working with groups of no more than 7 learners at a time, using video-enabled, touch-screen devices. Zoom and Google Classroom have become household words.


As we reshaped this experience according to best global benchmarks, it has become increasingly difficult to see how we will ever go back to in-person, brick-and-mortar teaching. We attribute the success of our small-group, live online (small lol) model to the following factors:


  • It is a less intimidating learning space
  • This model creates social cohesion
  • It is an information-rich environment
  • It optimally draws on the diversity of the learners
  • It reduces tension between parents and learners


Our learners’ results offer real evidence of how effective this ‘small lol’ model is. Our own and independent international research points to the main benefits students experience with this highly bespoke form of online teaching. More than 60% of Cambridge exams sat by our learners have yielded distinctions. Our CAPS and IEB learners report increased grades of up to 40% in some subjects. Obviously, something about our method works and works very well. Here is what we have found:


1. A Safer Space to Ask Questions


Traditional brick-and-mortar teachers spend a lot of time trying to discipline learners in their classrooms. Much is said about class sizes in South Africa, ranging from the twenties up to the sixties in some areas. The skill levels of learners differ, and teachers have little choice to teach to the middle; the average. Yet, no parent signs up their kid for ‘average’. Once an unruly classroom has settled in, there is little time left for eager learners to ask probing questions; especially not if the teacher is already irritable.

On the other end of the spectrum, parents seeking tutoring help seem obsessed with the idea that their child needs ‘one-on-one’ attention, whether in-person or online. What they overlook is that by the time a child needs extra help, his or her confidence in that subject is likely to be very brittle and their self-esteem very low. The last thing they need is to feel like they are being put on the spot – facing yet another demanding ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ on their own and being exposed for not knowing something.


The small-group, live online teaching model offers safety in numbers. The collegiality among peers, with the learner working from a familiar space in his or her own home, along with physical distance, all work together to allow inhibited learners the chance to come out of their shell. Our groups form social units, by varying degrees, that address the socialisation needs of home-schooling.


We observe, in small-group after small-group, how the ingrained fear of asking questions inherited from the ‘mainstream model’ gradually dissipates and even the most tenuous learners start to engage.


Among the regular compliments that our tutors receive from grateful parents, the one frequent theme we hear is: ‘My child has regained confidence.’


2. Intimacy & Social Connection

There is no easier way to explain the question of social connection than asking whether, since COVID’s first lockdown, you have ever been part of a family Zoom meeting, reconnecting with cousins and aunts across the country and the globe? Now picture that screen of family members, all being able to see one another’s faces simultaneously?


Compare that to your own high school experience, where you were all facing forward to your teacher, and how, if you turned to see or speak to a friend got you in trouble? That is the difference with live, online teaching. We all face forward into our cameras and we all see one another all the time. Faces 30-50cm from the screen. It does not get more up-close and personal than that anywhere in a regular day.


As a teacher, working online via Zoom, one gets a closer look at each learner’s facial expression on the screen than what I have ever seen during my 18 years in different classrooms locally or abroad. The educational technology shows us each learner’s name. We can call on them to test their understanding. We can assign each of them a quick exercise or move two or three into their own break-out discussion. Most of all, each teacher can carefully monitor and react to each student when he or she is either:


  • Tired or eager to learn
  • Distracted or engaged
  • Confused or in agreement
  • Relating to the other 2-4 learners in the class, or
  • Not on-par with the group and the syllabus


Yes, some days teens have “bad hair” days or pimples on noses, and we allow them to switch the camera off (in the same way that few, if any, of our online classes start before 10 am, respectful of teenagers’ different circadian rhythms).



3. Rich Teaching Resources

Global investment in learning technology surged to a breath-taking $36.38 billion in 2020. The pace is even faster in 2021. We recently had the chance to do a head-on-head comparison of our ever-developing online experience with what we used to know before COVID.


Our team was asked to assist a well-known public high school with an excellent track record in teaching, to work with an after-hour group of Grade 8s and 9s, arguably the cohorts most disrupted by COVID here during their transition to high school.

After what we jokingly refer to as “100 Weeks of Solitude”, a team of our tutors, now vaccinated, ventured into this brick-and-mortar environment. It felt like Marty McFly had set his time machine back several years. We love the traditional feel of this school’s buildings and classrooms. However, after having grown so used to working on-screen with learners’ faces and names right there on our desks, it felt alienating looking over a sea of nameless faces covered by masks. It was chalk and cheese, figuratively speaking, of course.


Here are the technological advantages we missed when in this brick-and-mortar classroom:


  • The rapid access to information on the Internet and its immediate shareability when an interesting question was raised in class
  • The seamless switch between presentations, videos, class notes, and joint exercises on the shared screen as when teaching online
  • A singular focus on the work by all our learners, seated in front of their own screens
  • The lack of distraction. Here, in the brick-and-mortar setting, as we worked with a student, the sound of other activity in the room could not be muted
  • The ability to take screenshots and sending learners an immediate summary of the class
  • Not being able to record the class for the learners who missed the session



4. Diversity


The Internet is democratic. When we login for a shared Zoom classroom discussion, many of the social conventions and prejudices endemic to other social settings become less pronounced. Learners use creative background settings that anyone can download from the Internet when shy or embarrassed by their humbler home environment. Where less affluent learners are forced to work from a shared space, noise-cancelling headphones block the crying baby or working parent in the background.

More interesting is that education is no longer a factor of your postal code – your neighbourhood’s socio-economic demography. We have had learners log into the same classroom while one was on family holiday in the Algarve and another was in a New Brighton township in the Eastern Cape. Sometimes we are even brave enough to allow people from Pretoria to join classrooms!!


In some of our CAPS tutoring sessions, learners attending different schools bring in very different perspectives as they share what their teachers had to say on certain topics. They can compare test questions and share prior exam papers and notes. In the Social Sciences, the Zoom format allows for fantastic discussions as people do not shout over one another and, as teachers, we can moderate and summarise each evolving set of arguments for the learners to follow in real-time. (It makes one wonder whether the Parliaments of the world should not rather meet via Zoom…)


5. The Parent-Learner Relationship

Home-schooling in South Africa is experiencing an enormous boom, as parents no longer want to deal with the on/off disruptions caused every time their kids isolate due to a classmate getting sick. All kinds of online home-schooling operators, often with big budgets and big greed, make big promises to well-meaning parents. The choices are overwhelming and the expression ‘deer in the headlights’ come to mind. Too often, we speak to parents whose first entre into the home-schooling process was a disaster.


What all parents knew, even before they started home-schooling, was that teenagers will rebel against parental advice. It is part of their development – seeking their way in the world and testing boundaries. To expect these same teenagers to now sit at your feet at home as their new teacher is just patently over-optimistic, and we hear saga after saga of how badly this experiment can go wrong.


This is where the small-group, online home-school model can become a parents’ best friend – by offering 24/7 immediate homework support. When a student can ask the teacher all his or her questions anytime they need, Mom no longer needs to be a Physics whizz. And Dad need not drop his business call to help with Math. We would be as bold as to say that the single most important factor when deciding on your child’s home-schooling options is to check the accessibility, quality and turn-around time of learner support.

So, despite the lost school days and the emotional rollercoaster that educating our kids has become, it is actually quite an exciting period of progress. Better options are emerging. The education sector is finally learning what most other industries have long known: highly personalised, quality, online service is the way of the future. Now, it is here.


To make the switch to Cambridge home-schooling, visit www.chapellaneacademy.co.za or call 082-452-8110.

To get extra subject tutoring help for learners between Grades 4-12, click here.

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