Disrupting SA education: High school from home and get into Harvard, Stanford, Oxford

In early 2017, Robert and Sam Paddock pocketed R1.8bn when selling their Cape-headquartered online education business Getsmarter.co.za to Nasdaq-listed 2U. Getsmarter has relationships with the world’s great universities, offering its global student base access to MIT, Harvard and Oxford degrees through online studies. Having served their obligatory earn-out period and after a short break, the Paddock brothers are back in the startup mix, this time with the Valenture Institute, which offers a massively disruptive option to traditional High School education. Like Getsmarter, leverages technology to offer students remote access to top quality education. At R60,000 a year, the cost compares favourably with leading private schools in SA – with the significant advantage of delivering a qualification that’s recognised by the best universities on earth. In 2020, Valenture will offer the equivalent of SA’s Grades 8, 9, 10 and 11, expanding to matric the following year. In this fascinating interview Robert Paddock explains how it works – and why this democratisation of schooling has already captured the imagination of both parents and pupils. – Alec Hogg

Welcome to Robert Paddock. Last time we spoke was when you did that amazing deal with Getsmarter. I remember the numbers were well north of a billion rand – a company that you started with your brother – you’ve presumably done your earn-out and decided to go off and do something different.

We have and it was an unbelievable experience and a once in a lifetime privilege. I took a few months off after finishing my tenure at Getsmarter, got some really good quality time with my wife and my family, did a lot of personal development work, endurance sport type activities and after a while I realised that my real passion is to positively impact those around me. I yearn for responsibility and I yearned to tackle new and to solve challenges and hopefully make a positive impact. The opportunity for Valenture Institute was too good to ignore and we’ve been running at it for a few months now.

Before we get onto Valenture, back to GetSmarter. How old are you Robert?

I’m 36.

Okay, so you’re 36, you’ve got plenty bucks – in anybody’s language – you could probably live anywhere in the world, you say now that this is not on your horizon, you’re not off to an island in the Pacific to talk to the hula girls.

Yeah. It’s interesting. Having gone through this process first hand, I think that we’re sold a lie. I don’t mean that there’s some big person in the sky that’s making this all up, I just think that generally what is sold to us is that as soon as you make it financially, you will find fulfilment and happiness, where you get your freedom. That’s not correct at all. I think a lot of satisfaction, a lot of the fulfilment we get from life, is actually voluntary adopting responsibility and actually moving towards situations where there is a challenge where we – with our unique set of skills, connections and capabilities – can actually have a positive impact. The more I’ve seen and the more people I’ve met with means, the same story comes up again and again. People who find themselves in a position where they can effectively retire choose not to. The idea that we’ve got to constantly yearn and strive for this position of freedom is false. I think that we should be striving towards responsibility, towards impact. My reflection is that this is where real fulfilment comes from.

Through service. But having a look at Valenture – I’ve looked at the video on your site with chancellor Prof. Robert Lue (we’ll talk about him in a moment) – where did the whole idea come from?

It’s been in incubation for a long time. We had the immense privilege at Getsmarter to educate working professionals from around the world – Getsmarter has now educated over 100,000 students from over 160 countries globally – and while Sam and I had a pivotal role in that, we had an incredible team behind it. I was always of the opinion that if we were able to move further down the pyramid towards the more formative years, the potential impact that you can have on the trajectory of a student’s life is magnificently enhanced. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking about for some time and after finishing up at Getsmarter, I had the time to start investigating what is the most appropriate application of these skills that I’d built at Getsmarter – for a younger audience – and I went through a process of about six months of market testing and market research in order to conceptualise this idea of the Valenture Institute .

Robert Lue – ex professor at Harvard University – your chancellor of Valenture Institute, what a pedigree.

He’s an exceptional human. He’s still at Harvard University, he’s a cellular biologist initially – in terms of his academic interests – but very early on in his career developed a primary interest which developed into teaching and learning. So over the years, he’s adopted a number of different roles and responsibility at Harvard University. He heads up something called Derek Bok teaching and learning which is Harvard’s faculty of Arts and Sciences. In fact it is one of the largest teaching learning departments at any Ivy League university in the States and they’re doing some of the most progressive work I’ve ever seen in the domain of teaching and learning. He then – with a number of other individuals – conceptualised and launched Harvard X which is Harvard’s largest online learning initiative to date. They’ve educated – I forget how many – millions and millions of students. He was part of conceptualising and launching EdX and in addition to that, he’s launched something more recently called Lab exchange. He is a UNESCO Chair for biology and social innovation and he’s been working on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for a very long time. He is an exceptional human. He and I forged a friendship over the years and when I started discussing the opportunity for the Valenture Institute, it was pretty obvious why he needed to be involved and enthusiastically came on board.

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I think you’ve already sold it without even telling us what Valenture Institute is about.

It is a global private online high school whose curriculum is recognised by the world’s leading universities. I say a global private online high school, what I mean by this is that students can study from wherever they are in the world as long as they have a laptop and an Internet connection. They can study online and start collaborating and working with peers – a global network of peers – as well as having direct access to teachers, mentors, faculty members, this is not a ‘Start anytime finished anytime’ computer mediated experience. Students are actually put into small classrooms where they have direct access to a teacher to their mentors. They have home rooms – if you can imagine a Skype like environment – built specifically for education. That’s what our students are experiencing on a daily basis. It’s an incredibly socially rich learning experience.

It’s home schooling to a degree – because you’re at home – you’ve got a laptop, you don’t go to a physical place of learning like a school,

You’re exactly right. So you don’t go to a physical space but you have a virtual space which – for all intents and purposes – becomes a social and dynamic space to engage with your teachers with your mentors and with your peers.

When you complete your university entrance exams, which universities recognise it?

The curriculum that we are working with is a UK based accreditation body called Edexcel. It is a globally recognised high school certification which the likes of Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and many more recognise. That doesn’t mean that because it’s a recognised curriculum every student is going to finish up regardless of their marks, the point is that the certification is recognised and gives you an entry point to apply to them.

And the way that you would operate – the way that the student would work – is they work from their laptop, in a virtual space, have access to mentors, to the lessons, to other students, to teachers and eventually presumably write exams.

That’s exactly right. There’s a number of levels that we offer during the high school curriculum, so really – in terms of the South African equivalents – we’re offering grades 8, 9, 10 and 11 initially and very shortly we’ll be offering the equivalent of matric and one year post matric.

What does the South African government think about this? Are you able to – as a parent – pull your child out of school and teach them through the Valenture Institute?

You certainly are and there is a recommendation from the government that you register students (under 15) – we help parents with this – you register them with the local department of education as a homeschooled student which is a very simple process. It’s fully legal and we’ve engaged with stakeholders throughout South Africa and abroad about the legal status of this, it’s actually increasingly encouraged. You can imagine that the current government education system isn’t nearly able to deal with the volume of students which are trying to get into the system. So they’re looking for viable alternatives.

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It sounds like a no brainer if you’ve got connectivity, has anybody else tried it in South Africa?

There’s a couple of companies that are offering some form of online education. There’s some interesting companies doing some interesting things. One of the biggest differentiators is firstly the quality of the curriculum – and I’ll speak in a second about the integration of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into the curriculum – secondly the social nature of this online experience. You can call something an online school simply by putting content on the Web and ask students to navigate through it at their own pace and if and when they feel ready they might be able to write an exam. For some students that might be absolutely sufficient. What we’ve found – and again this is from the experience of having educated literally over 100,000 students from around the world – we learn best in collaboration with our peers, we learn best in close proximity with our expert teachers, mentors, faculty and so on. This idea of a socially rich learning environment is one that – I would like to think – we have pioneered for the online high school space. That would be the biggest differentiator between what we’re offering at Valenture Institute and what a number of the other providers are offering.

What about extra curricular activities soccer, rugby?

Yes thats a really important question. We’re not able to offer everything virtually at Valenture Institute but we’re able to connect with academies, sports clubs, cultural societies etc. around South Africa and abroad. So what we do for parents and students is we give them a recommended list of clubs and societies that they can access in their regions and we assist them with getting involved in those. There are – as you can imagine – some limitations to what we can do virtually, but that said, we’re offering a number of our own internal virtual clubs. So running clubs – there’s wonderful tools like Strava – where you can create online communities and compare your average sprints and your run times from one student to another or from one member to another. We’ve got a number of virtual clubs – including running, public speaking, Ted x talks and chess – which students actually launch activities – in addition to these network of external clubs.

Robert where did you go to school?

I went to Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.

Would you have traded it for this?

I’m very grateful for the experience that I had at Rondebosch and especially to my teachers and a number of individuals who made a significant impact on my life. But yes I would. That’s one of the reasons why I have been thinking about this concept for a long time. In the day and age that we now live, how would I like to think about schooling and how would I like to think about schooling for my kids when they eventually come of age. So yes I would.

It’s interesting because the whole concept of going to a classroom and having a teacher teach and being in a social type environment has been with us for many decades, centuries, how do you change people’s minds from that to aligning them with a completely disruptive model that you’re putting here? Would the status quo kick back against it?

We started marketing in September this year and the response has been absolutely phenomenal Alec. I think that the traditional system works for a lot of students but it doesn’t work for everyone. Increasingly parents and students are willing to take a leap and try something different because the status quo isn’t working for them anymore, particularly in the more traditional schools – those students who’s natural tendencies and capabilities aren’t augmented and amplified in the traditional system – and what we’re seeing increasing, is that people are looking for alternatives. They’re looking for something that speaks more today to their unique personality and Valenture Institute is providing a wonderful alternative for students around Africa and abroad.

And what about the cost?

We are a private global online high school. It’s the equivalent of about R60,000 per year for the junior high which is the equivalent of Grade 8.

That compares pretty well with private schools, I’m sure you’ve done the calculations.

Yeah, it’s somewhat cheaper than a lot of the big name brand private schools, but the truth is that really high quality private education costs and even if there’s no infrastructure costs of facilities, really high quality teachers and personnel – which are there to support the students – is a costly endeavour. We’re differentiating and focusing on quality and that does come at a price.

And just to close off with, the teachers, where do you would you draw them from?

Our initial cohort – because we’re focusing most of our effort on students in South Africa – are all from South Africa and these are deans of departments, deputy vice principals, we’ve got the most extraordinary lineup of teachers at Valenture Institute for our inaugural cohort. At the end of Jan 2020 – as we have students from other geographies – we will be looking to hire teachers in those areas. We’ve already got students from Australia, South Korea, Malta and from the UAE. It’s been interesting, without even putting energy into marketing in different areas, we’re getting students from around the world and we’re very excited about the opportunity to create a truly global high school experience, where you’re networking with fellow students from other parts of the world. We really do believe that this is going to become a feature of the future of work where you collaborate with other colleagues from a virtual global force. If we can allow students to develop those skills and those networks, what a wonderful step up and yes, the teachers will be recruited from the areas where we’re servicing students. We’re particularly mindful of that as the time zones change.

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