As he works to put together a programme of online learning opportunities for students, Hedley Willsea reflects on education in an increasingly connected world
I don’t think I have anything in common with Bill Gates. I don’t wear glasses, I’m not a computer wizard and last but not least, there’s the gulf of a difference between us in terms of financial status.
But when it comes to education, I think Bill and I are on the same page. In a podcast called ‘How online courses can radically improve education by 2030’, Gates ruminates on the future of education, stating: “A core piece of it will be online courses, available to anyone with a smartphone or a tablet…”
Of course, smartphones and tablets are not yet readily available to everybody in the world and Bill goes on to discuss gender inequality as a major issue in education. However, what resonates with me is his suggestion that online courses are becoming increasingly interactive for students.
Online courses are not new to us; they have been in existence for over a decade and as a key component of modern adult learning they have their roots in the traditional correspondence course. So the next step? Making courses or entire curricula accessible to school-age students online.
At my school we are in the process of developing and offering online courses as part of a pilot project. These are to be run in addition to our regular classroom versions, student participation will be voluntary, and as yet there is no decision as to how the end product will look; some teachers are deferring to the Khan Academy models while others prefer the idea of Google Classroom as a platform.
For my own part, I’ve been posting online a set of lesson-by-lesson scaffolded notes and tasks in an effort to make the courses I teach clear and accessible to students who have either been absent, want to get ahead or would like to review what they did in class. To me, this seems a natural precursor to an online course, especially if we are to view online courses as a form of blended learning.
The results of my internet searches for school-based online courses are so far largely presenting organisations which, on the whole, charge parents for enrolling their children. Examples I’ve found include Net School, InterHigh, Briteschool and Academus which are British-based, and K12 which is American.
Most of these sites offer a full curriculum, and even individually tailored programmes or one-on-one tutoring. While some of the online classes focus on the externally examined years of High School such as Key Stages 4 and 5, others begin with Key Stage 3.
The courses offered by the websites are presented as complete, stand-alone alternatives to the mainstream physical school environment. They are conducted by qualified teachers in real-time (for example via Skype) and classes sizes can vary from eight to 13 students, with virtual lessons totalling from one to four hours each week per subject.
Several of these sites state their market as the following: students of parents avoiding mainstream schooling for religious, political or social reasons; students with physical disabilities or health issues; struggling and excelling students who could benefit from individual tuition, and expatriate students who, while avoiding local and international schools, still seek to sit the exams of international boards such as IB, CIE and EdExcel.
Private organisations such as those referred to above are perhaps more keyed into the practicalities of offering online courses than schools – but things are gathering momentum in international education. Pamoja Education, for example, describes itself as ‘A social enterprise working in cooperation with the International Baccalaureate to provide online Diploma Programme courses.’
It is the only online course provider approved by the International Baccalaureate – but the IB doesn’t stop there; it has developed its own ‘Open World Pilot Project’ which enables students from non-IB schools to link digitally with an IB World School. This enables them access to online IB courses but, as with all of the other organisations referred to here, any actual exams have to be taken physically in a real-world environment.
So is this the future of education? Well, some of the organisations I have mentioned stipulate that while virtual classrooms are the primary source of instruction, CD-ROMs, videos and textbooks are made available to support varied learning styles and needs. This sounds to me like blended learning, and the natural evolution of the present day existence of online courses being run by universities, colleges and professional development organisations.
However, one website asserted that students simply cannot get individualised and flexible learning in a traditional classroom environment at all. If this is true, we could all be out of a job soon, so I’m going to call on Bill for one last quote: “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” Thanks, Bill.
Hedley Willsea is a British teacher currently teaching IB English Language and Literature to High School students at the Anglo-American School of Moscow.