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Steady advance of online scholars

Eleanor Caldwell visits a Glasgow school to see the programme that is sweeping the country

Virtual teaching is increasingly a reality in Scotland as online learning spreads. The biggest success story is the Scholar programme, which is delivering Higher courses to more than 45,000 pupils.

From small beginnings in 2000, the courses, developed by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, are now running in all 32 authorities.

Students can log on to find the syllabus for physics, chemistry, biology, maths, computing and French. As many as 20,000 pupils now use it for Higher maths.

The programme received pound;700,000 from the Scottish Executive last month under the Future Learning and Teaching programme for developing online learning resources for secondary schools and has been subsumed into the Interactive University (a joint initiative between Heriot-Watt and Scottish Enterprise) to deliver Scottish education to countries from England to China.

At Hillhead High in Glasgow, all the senior pupils studying sciences and maths have access to Scholar. Its head, Ken Cunningham, is the headteacher representative on the Scholar board and is enthusiastic about its benefits for the curriculum. "Scholar is offering high quality, well designed materials and the students have a much greater sense of independent learning," he says.

Jim Boyle, the principal teacher of chemistry, regards Scholar as integral to both Higher and Advanced Higher programmes. He does not employ it on a strictly timetabled basis, but uses it regularly to show simulations of complex experiments and processes to add an exciting dimension to classes.

Due to lack of space for computers in his laboratory classroom, he uses a data projector for whole class teaching.

He also sees it as invaluable for students who have missed crucial lesson time through illness. "It's a real problem if they miss class time when they're preparing for an assessment. With Scholar they can keep up with work at home."

Mr Boyle has also begun to use Scholar simulations with other year groups, demonstrating a simulation of fractional distillation in work on fuels with S3 pupils, for example.

John Taylor, the principal teacher of physics, welcomes Scholar simulations, such as photoelectric emissions, as additional resources to other teaching programmes and his Advanced Higher students appreciate the quality of the material.

Some pupils, such as Ronald Mason and Umair Raja, find the Scholar textbook, enhanced by the computer programme, is an ideal balance, though others feel they work most effectively with the Scholar text booklets. S6 pupil Joanna Humphreys says: "Everything is very well laid out in the booklets and I don't always have time to use the computer."

In biology, principal teacher John Meechan is preparing for the department's first cohort of Advanced Higher students next year. He hopes to have up to 10. Scholar will serve a dual purpose for him: as well as a teaching aid, he sees it as an invaluable resource for teachers working at a different examination level for the first time. Hyperlinks, he says, are its main strength.

Staff development accounts for a third of the Scholar budget now. Teachers using the programmes are entitled to one full staff development day a year.

This focuses on practical teaching methods for the virtual learning environment, such as effective use of data projectors and electronic whiteboards.

An Advanced Higher pilot project has just been established to run in four authorities - South Ayrshire, Scottish Borders, Edinburgh and Highland - during the months leading up to the exams. This allows biology, chemistry, physics and computing students to send questions to a team of four tutors via the Scholar Discussion Board. The tutors are expected to check their message board every day and to spend up to five hours a week offering advice. All the tutors are principal teachers and it is hoped they will provide notes and mini-lectures on key topics in the immediate pre-examination period.

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