Casualties of the digital revolution

Online courses could exacerbate attainment gap, report warns

The rushed introduction of large-scale online learning in schools could have a detrimental effect on the most disadvantaged learners, a government report has warned.

Although massive open online courses (Moocs) have revolutionised the higher education sector, offering a host of learning opportunities to anyone with an internet connection, they have so far had a much less significant impact in schools.

There are signs that the tide may be turning, however. In March, edX - the Mooc provider run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - revealed plans to offer lessons for school-age students. And on this side of the Atlantic, five school-level Moocs have been announced since last year, covering subjects including maths, physics and engineering for GCSE and A-level students.

Schools also seem to be warming to the idea of online learning replacing or supplementing traditional classroom teaching. Last week, academy chain Ark Schools unveiled proposals for the country's first "blended learning" school.

But a Department for Education report published this week argues that Moocs are not a "magic answer" and that "unwise" implementation could "exacerbate gaps in attainment".

The report acknowledges that Moocs could bring benefits for some learners and in specific subject areas, as well as helping to cut costs. "A few [schools] look at the potential to adjust the teacher-student ratio, although more look to `free up' teachers from administration and lower-value tasks in order to focus more on critical interventions," it says.

However, using the approach for high-stakes exams such as GCSEs could prove problematic, the report warns. "The idea that stand-alone Moocs are suitable for all learners has proven false in higher education, and will be doubly so in secondary education. A drop-out rate of over 90 per cent, as seen in higher education and lifelong learning, won't wash.

"Indeed, there is a risk that unwise deployment could exacerbate gaps in attainment between historically advantaged and disadvantaged learners. Accordingly, the idea that Moocs can replace any significant number of classroom teachers in the short or medium term is fanciful."

The first school-level Moocs to emerge in England cater for a variety of needs. Cambridge GCSE Computing Online, for instance, features resources to support GCSE students taking the OCR qualification. It is designed to be used as a revision aid or for self-teaching through the "flipped classroom" model.

Another course, available at, features videos by academics from the University of Cambridge's engineering department, and is designed to help A-level students prepare for university entrance interviews.

Ros Morpeth, chief executive of distance learning provider the National Extension College, doubts that remote learning would be appropriate for younger students. "I think you need to have a high level of sophistication and confidence," she said. "We find that younger students need much more personal support and feedback."

However, the report argues that Moocs could "create significant" value for schools in areas such as "provision for gifted and talented students, for supporting low take-up subjects and for exam preparation", as well as helping some learners to "become highly engaged and increase their productivity".

Although most teachers lack knowledge about how Moocs work, those that have used them are "significantly more enthusiastic", the report says, adding that online courses should be incorporated into teacher training programmes.

Rather than seeing Moocs as a threat, the report recommends that teachers should act as an "expert authority".

Mickey Revenaugh, executive vice-president of online education firm Connections Learning, part of Pearson, said that teachers using such an approach needed to see themselves as a "facilitator and mentor" rather than a "deliverer of content".

"This is a huge mental leap, and most teachers are anchored by their training and by a whole career of experience," she added.

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