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New online platform demystifies university life for learners

Thursday, 11 February 2016   (0 Comments)
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GoVarsity is an online platform developed by township innovators Sinethemba Makoma and Luthando Dyasi to offer information and guidance to high school learners eager to access tertiary education. Using a design thinking process the duo developed a concept they felt had broad appeal to many young people who need to navigate the complex process of selecting institutions, applying and settling in a starkly different university life.  

In 2012, Sinethemba Makoma was one of a hundred Grade 12 pupils enrolled in a programme sponsored by the University of Cape Town (UCT). The 100-Up programme offered career guidance, mentorship and an introduction to university life.

Back home in Khayelitsha, Sinethemba’s friends soaked up what he had learned. One of those friends, Luthando Dyasi, realised that they weren’t alone in their need to understand the new world they were moving into. Every school leaver entering higher education would have the same questions, fears and concerns.

Gaining a place at higher education institutions is only the start of the battle for Grade 11 and 12 students. Even as top achievers, the transition from the relative comfort zone of the school classroom to the unfamiliar environment of the university lecture hall can be a steep and daunting learning curve. For many students that transition can make or break an academic career.

For others, even the application process can seem an intimidating hurdle. Students from disadvantaged communities are particularly vulnerable. The apartheid system prevented many earlier generations from accessing higher education opportunities, and so the students find themselves fighting for survival in a deeply unfamiliar environment.

Luthando and Sinethemba devised the idea for a platform that would help school-leavers gain the upper hand with precise and clear information. It would offer tips, advice, guidance and mentorship from their peers who had walked the same path before them. It would provide practical advice, such as the university terminology, but also more philosophical guidance, including how to choose the right course and how to make positive lifestyle choices.

In 2013, Innovate South Africa visited Luthando's school, inviting learners to submit solutions to address local challenges. Their idea won and GoVarsity was born. Luthando and Sinethemba developed a prototype for the platform, taking advantage of the mentoring and R5 000 received as part of the prize. With a further grant of R10 000, the duo were later accepted into the RLabs innovation and incubation programme. That gave them space to refine the concept, but also access to hosting resources, mentors and development expertise.

The platform development process followed the classic design thinking model of identifying a problem, devising possible solutions, developing the solutions with end-user input and implementation. Working with Innovate South Africa, the two developers first created a prototype. This was the minimum viable product that could be used to begin a fact-finding exploration with end users.

Luthando explains that he went into the process with a very clear vision in his mind of what the platform should be. But, he explains, the design thinking process triggered a mind-shift for him: “I realised that the end product should be modelled on the needs of the end users and not my own ideas.” The initial prototyping stage with Innovate South Africa took around six months.

Later, working with RLabs, the team took the prototype to four schools and talked to learners about what they would want to see in the platform. They also consulted university students. The users’ combined input ranged from cosmetic suggestions relating to look and feel, but also about content and functionality.

Luthando explains that there were some surprises along the way. For example, the developers believed that users would prefer rich content such as picture galleries and video. In contrast, users were more influenced by readable content contributed by their peers, using grammar, words and terminology that they could relate to.

It took about a year to develop the second version to the point at which it was ready to be deployed. GoVarsity was launched as a browser-based application in 2015. To date, the platform has around 500 registered users, and is populated with peer-generated content.

Luthando and Sinethemba are continuing to develop the platform, which will be available as a mobile application in the near future. The platform is currently targeted at high school learners, but the team is also working on developing a model for university students too. Having allocated the funding they previously received, they are also seeking to monetise the platform for future sustainability, with support from the higher education institutions.

Luthando summarises the vision for GoVarsity: “Many students have the appetite but not the confidence to enter higher education. We want to bridge the gap between school leavers and universities, using innovation and technology to share knowledge and take the fear out of higher education for all learners.”

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