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Cyber boys and girls

Stephen Manning examines how pupils from all over the country can come together in virtual classrooms

If you've ever worried your pupils can spot you're wearing the same outfit two days running, or that they have already figured out the rotation of your three ties, you might consider the kind of teaching where all such vanity is suspended - the virtual classroom.

Pupils unable to attend school through illness or exclusion could have their access to education transformed by the developing technology around personalised learning. One such project is the Nisai Virtual Academy (NVA), which is now in its fifth academic year as an online learning community for out-of-school children, from key stage 2 up to AS-level.

Nisai Education produces software for "e-learning and remote education".

About half of the virtual classroom's 250 pupils, who are based all over the country, have physical conditions ranging from ME to leukaemia, plus five who are paralysed. It also caters for excluded pupils whose goal is reintegration into mainstream education.

The minimum enrolment for a pupil is one term of approximately 12 weeks.

Children are referred by local authorities or funded privately. Fees, paid weekly, are pound;80 for the first subject and pound;40 after that, with some pupils only able to study one subject because of their medical circumstances.

Results from the virtual classroom are encouraging. In 200506 the GCSE pass rate at A* to C was 67 per cent, higher than the national average of 58.5 per cent. For AS-level it was 100 per cent. The heart of the programme is live group lessons, lasting up to an hour, for which the pupils prepare using the resource materials in the online subject areas.

"We try to develop independent learners," says Andy McGarry, the academy's director of communications who teaches basic skills. "Here's the topic you will be working on. Look at this material, because we will be doing activities on it in the lesson. Then there will be homework assignments.

It's more like how university students prepare."

The lessons are taken by subject teachers, based either at home or at Nisai's offices in Harrow, Middlesex. There are 10 teachers, including six full-time, and all have to complete a training programme on the unusual demands of online teaching.

There is no webcam or face-to-face contact. It's all text and voice, although there is a photo of the teacher onscreen. The number of pupils in each class varies but is rarely more than 10. Each pupil can talk, or text, with the teacher directly or with the whole class and, when "handed the air" by the teacher, can write or draw on the whiteboard via their keyboard. Every lesson is recorded and archived.

"These are pupils starting from a disadvantage who are isolated so you need to be very supportive," says Janet Davies, who takes lessons from her home in Poole, Dorset. "I tend to log on early and chat before lessons. I have got to know some of them very well."

Pupils choose how much they want to disclose about themselves. The confidence gained from being invisible and not being judged by disability is one of the crucial factors in getting them re-engaged in learning. And without face-to-face contact, a different kind of teaching develops.

"I prefer it because you are concentrating fully on designing lessons, rather than having to deal with extracurricular activity such as monitoring a playground," says Femi Asowile, a science teacher. He formerly taught in north London but now does 16 lessons a week for Nisai


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