SA tech entrepreneur opening maths teaching vaults to help stay-at-home students

Online education specialists has opened its 2,000 maths-teaching videos, covering Grades 8 to 12, to all South African learners. In this podcast, founder James Lees explains that this is part of the company’s contribution to helping in the fight against Covid-19, enabling students who have been forced to stay-at-home to keep up to date with their lessons. – Alec Hogg

We are going to Durban now to meet James Lees; he’s got a company called James, what is it that you guys do?

What we do is, we’re a company that is passionate about making sure that learners are going to become agents in the Fourth Industrial Revolution so it’s 4IR and not objects.  So what we’ve been focusing on in the last couple of years is really producing resources that are going to enable learners to become agents in 4IR and so we’ve focussed predominantly on maths first and mathematics training. So we’ve got advanced maths programmes, we’ve got mathematic solutions from grade 8 to grade 12 and then we’ve also tried to help South African learners get access to the Right to Agree Programmes that they need through national benchmark test preparation but we’ve really been passionate from about 2015 on trying to do this in a scalable way online.

So specialising in high school maths?

Yes, correct. We are currently focussed on high school.

And how do you do that, how do you actually help people? Clearly [laughter] because we spoke about online but you would do it in a different way to the classroom environment?

Yeah, one thing that we realised a couple of years back is that there was a lot of kind of doom and gloom with the South African education system and all the rest. We all know and are aware of the challenges that we have and what we actually realised was that we have some of the best educators in the world, arguably in the world and it was really just the question of access. So we thought, well one way we can try and help this is by simply capturing these educators in video form and then trying to deliver them via web technology and different accessible technologies as the technology stack evolves and grows so that students can get access to these top class educators. That’s one of the core challenges, really getting access to knowledge, access to that educator and so that’s really where we thought we could start. We started with maths and we took a very experienced educator, Trish Pike to, some of the private schools in South Africa, in Johannesburg St Stithians and Kearsney in KZN, we said, right Trish, we’re going to produce your raw material and that’s how we kind of started it.

And how many videos or tutorials do you have?

For our mathematic solutions from grade 8 to grade 12, we’ve got over 2,000 learning videos. We are really being mindful of how we produce those videos in a short as possible but long as necessary type form. They are not too long where learners would get bored or lose focus. With that we’ve also focused on building what we call, test your understanding. We follow a very simple process and that’s just, learn, practice, assess and just repeating that kind of model through repetition.

And how well are they accessed?

In terms of numbers or students?


They are accessed pretty well. It could be a lot larger in terms of getting numbers onto our platform but we are at the beginning of our journey, I mean we’ve had this solution finished from about mid-2018 so it’s really not that old but the uses that we are seeing from learners is what’s incredible. When they do come online onto our platform, they really are seeing enormous benefits and we get some really great data from that to show their progression as they go through and get better at their subjects.

And that is the whole story now, opening it up, once someone’s tested, we’ve seen it on our side with webinars. When somebody who’s used to doing presentations and all the hassle factor that goes with it suddenly discovers there’s a webinar at a fraction of the cost, they jump in and I guess that would have been part of the motivation for you to do your Covid-19 bit, opening up your platform to anyone for free during this period?

Yeah, most definitely, I mean we talk about it at, about the mental hurdle that is around online learning and some people have made that jump earlier. The earlier adopters that jumped at it quite early and others are onto it more gradually and with Covid-19, I think there are two very positive benefits for us here at Advantage Learn. I mean we were really sincere in our approach, we really did want to help. We knew that learners would have a big challenge and educators as well. Just continuing their learning during this time and so we really thought we could help there and based on that but then it also is about helping people get over that mental hurdle to online learning.

And obviously very South African focussed? Do the different provinces still write different exams now?

No, the two main systems of education at high school level follow the same curriculum and all the education systems are focussed on the NSC exam on a grade 12 level and now they are starting to think about introducing something called the GEC at a grade 9 level, so those are the main kind of testing points. At grade 9 level and then at grade 12 level and all the provinces follow the same except for the international curriculum.

So the point here is that the parents who are listening to this and have got their loved ones at home now because of the schools closing and so on, they can go, push them towards, your website, and they will be able to access tutorials on maths and become maths’ whizzes during the next few months when they’re kept at home. In other words, they can’t just sit there and twiddle their thumbs?

Exactly, it’s a great time to actually improve your maths while you don’t have to rush through the syllabus in the school environment. We need the mathematicians clearly to protect us from whatever the future throws at us, so get learning.

James Lees is from Isn’t that a nice story Dave Shapiro?

It kills me you know that because I loved maths and science at school, I mean listen, I matriculated, I can’t even remember back in the sixties. You know Alec, we had teachers who were so old and so bored and you set your sights on getting 60-70%, that was about the best that you could do with those kind of teachers. When you see what’s available to kids, I mean it’s so enthralling and there for anybody who does want to learn has access to these incredible teachers and programmes. That I apply even through my university career, boy, so things have changed for the benefit.  I think I need my life again.

Well, who knows? Maybe there are some people who say you will have another life David and I look forward to broadcasting with you in that life as well although [laughter] this time we’ll just stay away from television, I think, we will just keep doing the radio. Dave, as always, good to have you through the programme today. It worked okay, yeah I mean its better when we are in the studio but we certainly have been nicely connected. Fascinating stories, I think just this last one, before we part, James’ point there that when people, it’s a little bit like a really good curry. If you don’t know what curry is, well you’d ignore it and you might even diss it but when you do taste it, you realise that there’s a whole new world out there that you can start experimenting with and I guess with online education and learning and absorbing, it is something that is very different for many people but my goodness, once you’ve tasted it.

It is and you reach such a wide audience, you know, and I think that’s the beauty about this. Even talking about the webinars, you are reaching people that you could never reach before by simple invitation. I find this all very exciting.

A whole new world for us here.

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