When Paula Blair's English teacher suddenly had to take leave from school, it could have proved a major setback for the 17-year-old. With her sights firmly set on taking an English degree, Paula had been looking forward to studying for A2 English Literature at Ashfield Girls' High School in Belfast. Luckily, she was quickly taken under the wing of Ashfield's principal and former English teacher Adeline Dinsmore.
Adeline met with Paula, the only English Literature student at Ashfield, once a week and created an online study guide for her, which gave her the resources and support to learn independently, using the internet.
Today, with an A-grade to her credit, Paula has embarked on her degree at Queen's University, Belfast. She says she's lucky to have to been able to learn online. "Adeline and I worked in partnership, and I felt I was entering the adult world by doing the course that way."
Adeline added Paula's study guide to the school's website in preparation for last year's autumn term. She was confident of the approach, having experienced its benefits almost a decade earlier in a flexible learning pilot at Belfast Model School for Girls. "The pilot was based on the principles of supported self-study, and even when funding for the pilot dried up, the English department continued to construct every new topic around those principles," she says. "The first idea is that the entire course is presented up front. The learner knows all the assessment objectives and tasks from the start, so there are no surprises lurking. You construct a study guide which is, in a sense, content-free because you are focusing on the activities that someone has to do in order to be able to say 'I know this', or 'I understand this'."
Paula's internally assessed coursework was to be a 1,500-word essay discussing the messages conveyed in Irish Short Stories, an anthology edited by Frank O'Connor. Adeline created a study guide featuring 10 activities. The first nine were designed as stepping stones towards the writing of the essay, and were also aimed at helping Paula prepare for exams. The activities ranged from the creation of a beginner's guide to the short story, to the preparation of a presentation on Irish attitudes and values as depicted in films, poetry, drama and prose.
Adeline added what she calls "helplines" - tips and pointers to information that can help with a specific task. One helpline explores how language is used to invite the reader to share a particular point of view - the literary equivalent of selecting camera angles, such as long-shots or close-ups, in cinematic work. Another introduces the idea of symbolism and how it works in literature, which is an essential concept for understanding the Irish Short Stories collection.
Adeline also created a list of resources, many of which were web-based. "I encouraged Paula to find more references, which she did. The internet is a very powerful tool for shifting the emphasis from the teacher to the learner," she says. "It is just fantastic to be able to talk to the person who wrote what you are reading, and tap into expertise at the touch of a button."
Paula used an online form to keep a record of her reading, noting her thoughts on plots, themes, characters and language. She also emailed a regular learning log to Adeline, which summarised the reading, writing and research she was engaged in, and any areas where she needed help. "I emailed Adeline frequently - at least once a week - because I was constantly working, most of the time on things beyond the set activities," Paula explains. "I would read something and email what I thought about it, and she would email back, usually the same night, so it felt like we were making progress together.
"I had used the net a lot, so I was really looking forward to trying the course this way, and I enjoyed the whole year. What I liked best was the independence - it felt like every achievement was my own. The way the study guide was set up was very helpful, and encouraged me to think really deeply about aspects, such as characterisation and interaction in the stories I was reading."
If Adeline had to cancel their weekly meeting Paula would email her the work they were going to discuss and Adeline would return it with her comments. Both agree that when they did see each other, the meeting felt more like a tutorial than a traditional teaching session. "The fact that we were communicating online enriched our face-to-face contact. When we met, we could have much more of a dialogue about what Paula was doing, rather than me teaching her," says Adeline.
"We were able to discuss things as if we were two adults having a conversation about something we both really enjoy," says Paula. "Before, I had always felt like a child - English had been about reading the text and being taught. This was a whole new experience and I felt like I was becoming an adult. I am very grateful, because not everyone starting university has had the chance to work independently. Many people have only ever sat in a big class, in a classroom."
In future, Adeline would like to involve a network of mentors in the course. At her previous school she enlisted the help of a lecturer at Queen's University, who took tutorials as well as corresponding with students by email. Paula spent at least a couple of hours working on the course every day, researching on the internet at home and in her free periods at school.
She says that some of the activities, such as preparing PowerPoint presentations, helped with her A-level computing, which she also took last year. Her advice to anyone tackling self-supported study is accept any help you can. "It is wonderful how people can come together and bounce ideas off each other, and that applies in any subject."
There have been two years of whirlwind activity since Adeline arrived at Ashfield, and she plans to encourage her staff to develop self-study resources on the school website. "The approach encourages teachers to behave in a different way. Rather than being the fount of all knowledge, and imparting that knowledge in a didactic way, they are encouraged to be more reflective about their practice," she says. "It makes them think about what is actually involved in knowing about a topic - about the essential learning experiences the student has to go through."
Adeline believes the approach would work for any subject. "The potential for online learning is immense. It is empowering, particularly in the case of minority subjects, where it wouldn't be viable to run a course for one person. In schools of the future, I believe that people will come in to be with other people, but quite a lot of the time they could be working on their own."
RESOURCES Adeline Dinsmore's study guide can be found at www.ashfieldgirls.orgenglishA2
Listed below are some of the resources Adeline suggested to help Paula Blair prepare for her written coursework: www.yale.eduynhticurriculumunits
A series of curriculum units created by the fellows of the Yale-New Haven Teachers' Institute. It includes 'Elements of the short story', featured in the collection entitled 'Reading the twentieth century short story'.
Online anthology of short story classics by the masters of the genre, from Honore de Balzac to Ernest Hemingway. Adeline recommended The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant.
The fiction writer's page explores the use of common symbols and patterns in literature, and what they tell the reader.
The Tyler Junior College site features many literary links, such as www.dictionary.com, which features a dictionary of symbolism.
AS Guru English focuses on the parts of the curriculum that students find most difficult. It includes guides to the use of language and the interpretation of set prose texts.
This site includes a detailed guide to writing argumentative essays, produced for students at the Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne.