October 2010


  • Academy answers
    Against the clock and thanks to a gargantuan effort by the leadership team, Northampton School for Boys converted to academy status at the beginning of September. Mike Griffiths explains why and how they dealt with the whirlwind of legal, financial and administrative hurdles. More
  • Taking a new direction
    While other quangos have been culled, the government shake-up of structures has handed the newly-formed YPLA a larger than expected role. Christine Tyler explains what its future relationship with schools, colleges and LAs is likely to be. More
  • Internet classrooms
    What will happen when learning online is more accessible, flexible and rewarding than traditional methods? Tim Nash looks at the cyber-school movement in the US and the challenges and opportunities for UK schools and colleges. More
  • A new combination
    Abbeyfield School has introduced an innovative cross-curricular approach to teaching at Key Stage 3 with the ‘Humanities Wheel’. David Nicholson explains. More
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What will happen when learning online is more accessible, flexible and rewarding than traditional methods? Tim Nash looks at the cyber-school movement in the US and the challenges and opportunities for UK schools and colleges.

Internet classrooms

In a speech at a technology conference this August, Bill Gates predicted that in five years’ time, the best higher education (HE) will be available on the internet. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports Gates as saying: “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any university. College, except for the parties, needs to be less place-based.”

The question for those of us involved in education is whether this vision is limited to the HE sector. If the answer is no, then perhaps it is time to step back and consider, just as many HE institutions are having to do, what a school or college will look like when learning is more easily accessed, flexible, enjoyable, or rewarding online.

The central issue is: what do we do if and when students and parents decide that they can learn more effectively online than in the classroom? And, perhaps more importantly, what do we do when the education profession is convinced that online learning really can fulfil its long-promoted potential?

I took a straw poll in our office and asked: what are you currently learning, and where are you learning it from? One former primary head was learning to play classical guitar. His teacher? YouTube.

Another colleague was learning how to publish photos, using online Photoshop tutorials. Me? I was learning how to brew beer using an online guide, authored by a group of enthusiasts. The beer was nearly undrinkable, but the learning was easy.

The fact is that people were enjoying a positive online learning experience, and were making informed choices about what, how and when to learn.

None of this is news for people in schools and colleges. Students are using technology to support their learning and boost their personal productivity in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. And yet, we find ourselves in a position where the value of ICT in education, in spite of immense capital investment, remains under question.


Perhaps we have shot ourselves in the foot. Much investment over recent years has focused on providing technology for teachers with laptops and interactive whiteboards at the head of the list. By substituting technologies, such as interactive whiteboards replacing traditional whiteboards, we have provided higher quality facilities and richer resources, but have we actually changed practice?

New technology has allowed lessons to become sharper and more focused, but students’ expectations have outpaced this improvement, fuelled by their daily experiences of gaming, mobile phones and social networking.

In the US, there is a relatively new phenomenon, the cyber-school. There are more than 150 entirely online schools in America, serving around 100,000 students – and it is growing.

They include well established and successful organisations such as PA Cyber in Pennsylvania with a current roll of around 9,000 students and a strong achievement record. The make-up of the student population is surprisingly diverse.

My organisation, EdisonLearning, operates two entirely online high schools in South Carolina and Colorado. Many of the students are young people for whom traditional education just didn’t work, but there are also aspiring athletes who need to fit learning in alongside training, teenage mums, young people on the autistic spectrum who thrive in their familiar home surroundings and others who just want to have better control over their own learning.

The wholly cyber-school is a story for another article. But we know from these online high schools that a broad range of students can learn and achieve great things. It doesn’t happen by magic – outstanding support, coaching and mentoring (online, of course) are essential.

And there is still a place for highly skilled professionals. In an online course the base materials and much of the follow-on material will already have been designed and developed, while the teacher’s role is to guide and motivate.

The interaction between teacher and student has thus shifted from ‘delivery of learning’ towards greater support and facilitation. In many ways, it offers more scope for professional and diagnostic engagement between student and teacher than in the conventional classroom setting.

So outstanding teachers remain at the heart of every student’s success, but technology allows us to rethink how best to utilise the resources and expertise at our disposal to provide a learning experience that has the student absolutely at its centre.

Leaders’ challenge

Let’s go back to the big question of what might happen when students, parents and the teaching profession all recognise that technology offers new options for the organisation and delivery of teaching and learning.

What potential challenges and opportunities are likely to confront school and college leaders?

The ‘hybrid’ approach – that is, one in which time and resources are utilised in a different way to enable best use of online learning opportunities – suggests that students will want greater autonomy in how and when they learn. Hybrid students are likely to say, “I know what I need to learn and to work on. I now need to organise my time accordingly.” Can the existing approach to timetabling and the overall use of time flex sufficiently to meet a different way of working?

Already teachers are fully aware of the need to help students to differentiate between fact and opinion, particularly when working with online sources. What are the implications for the profession when students seek to capitalise more extensively on digital social networks and communities to support their learning?

The role of the teacher as a learning coach is critical to the success of the hybrid student by guiding decision making, signposting and supporting. Does this change the nature of a teacher’s job?

The hybrid model believes that students are capable of working autonomously, and depends on this happening, whereas the traditional model is based largely on classrooms of people doing similar things at the same time. Is it possible to move from one mode to another and what needs to be done to bring about the change?

Hybrid models will make fewer demands for traditional classroom space. What does this mean for existing buildings and for future capital investment?

In the hybrid world, teachers are likely to spend less time in a face-to-face traditional teaching context. What are the implications of this change for teachers and how might their role evolve? What are the financial implications of an increasingly hybrid model of learning?

All of this is against a background of change in the educational ICT world in England. Becta is set to disappear, and it appears unlikely that government will invest in technology as in the past. But in a world of greater autonomy, opportunities are likely to emerge for schools and colleges to utilise technology and exploit the potential educational and financial benefits.

At EdisonLearning, we are working with our colleagues in the US to understand how these benefits might be realised and will be sharing our ideas over the coming year. At this stage, it seems clear that the technology exists to do what needs to be done. The challenge is how to change systems, organisation and structures to allow schools and colleges to make it happen.

  • Tim Nash is director of development for EdisonLearning.

Further reading...

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