5 essential lessons from four years at our 'e-school'

The e-Sgoil (e-school) on Scotland's Western Isles has been honing live online teaching since 2016, explains head Angus Maclennan

Angus Maclennan

5 essential lessons from four years at our 'e-school'

The issue of live teaching and whether or not Scottish schools are doing enough of it hit the news recently.

Young people are confident in the use of technology for social purposes but, when it comes to education, there is still a strong desire for real-time interaction between teachers and pupils; the worst thing we could do just now is leave pupils to their own devices (pun absolutely intended). The reality is that most pupils want to be taught, and most teachers still want to teach. 

That is why at e-Sgoil – set up in 2016 by the Western Isles Council in a bid to provide equal access to courses and subjects for pupils, irrespective of where they live – our aim is to create real-time classes that foster a sense of belonging. As active participants, pupils will develop real digital and collaborative learning skills as well as acquiring the requisite curricular knowledge.


Coronavirus: 'Pupils need live online teaching'

Long read: Scotland’s e-Sgoil is finding favour beyond its Western Isles base

Another view: Teachers should not live stream lessons


In its first year, e-Sgoil reached 61 pupils; so far this year we have reached 645, and have delivered lessons in schools in around half of Scotland’s local authorities. And while we are clear that we are still learning, we have developed a certain amount of expertise.

Teachers can feel daunted by the idea of live online teaching, but the reality is the ingredients for a successful lesson taught remotely are not that different from a traditional one.

A good e-teacher will:

  • Not over complicate it. E-teaching is basically just what a good teacher would do in their classroom.
  • Avoid filling every silence – it is not a TV performance. Give pupils the opportunity to learn, the time to think and formulate their responses and give yourself time to breathe. You won’t be able to keep this kind of teaching going period after period if you feel the need to perform all the time.
  • Plan lessons even more carefully. As with a classroom, you need to know the starting point and the finishing point but it’s even more important to get the timing right in an online lesson so that you keep the pupils’ attention. Chunk content and activities on a bite-sized basis to ensure that pupils maintain focus and vary activities to include teacher-led exposition, pupil-led learning, opportunities for individual, paired and group work. 
  • Don’t be afraid to let the pupils speak. Teachers can feel that they have to maintain control and sometimes they need a bit more experience before they allow the natural dynamics that happen in any classroom to take place. But pupils should be active participants in lessons and their voices must be heard frequently. This is best achieved through: posing of well-crafted, high-order questions; setting questions to which pupils have to respond on a flipped learning basis; encouraging discussion and debate during class; and allowing time for pupils to prepare extended responses. 
  • Even with all the above strategies in place, ensuring that pupils stay engaged in remote teaching and learning sessions is a challenge. (As if it weren’t in traditional classroom settings!) Therefore, it is strongly recommended that short, tightly controlled "brain break" activities be built into lesson plans in order to keep pupils mentally alert and inject variety and humour into the learning.

Ultimately, there is a huge difference between online learning and remote teaching. While online learning is cheaper, it can often be a lonely exercise, best suited to more motivated students. Remote teaching, on the other hand, provides a more responsive online learning community which appeals to school pupils who value human interaction and may not have developed the independent study skills and self-discipline required for college- or university-style online delivery.  

The two modes of instruction are, of course, not mutually exclusive: when properly planned, a blended learning approach works well for the majority of pupils

Angus Maclennan is headteacher of e-Sgoil, an e-learning project based in Scotland's Western IsIes

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