Maths and science get a lift from e-learning boom
Evidence has also emerged that what the university believes is the largest interactive online learning programme in the world is helping turn pupils back on to once unpopular subjects.
These developments were described as "absolutely incredible" by Roy Leitch, Heriot-Watt's assistant principal. Scholar was launched in June 2000 with just four authorities on board and considerable scepticism among others.
Now it has enrolled more than 45,000 pupil learners and 3,000 teacher tutors who can access specially written programmes at Higher and Advanced Higher levels.
The initiative, backed by pound;700,000 from the Scottish Executive, received an official imprimatur from Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, who saw it in action during a visit to Queensferry High in Edinburgh on Tuesday.
This "virtual college" offers texts, assessments, simulations, animations, interactive tutorials and online discussion groups in maths, computing and science. It is being extended to cover Advanced Higher French.
Perhaps its most notable achievement to date has been its association with turning around the alarming drop in interest in the sciences. There was a 22 per cent increase in numbers taking science subjects and maths at Advanced Higher last year.
Heriot-Watt benefited directly with a 17 per cent rise in applications to science and engineering courses - against a national decline previously of 10 per cent a year.
"Teachers and students like it," Professor Leitch says, and he hopes the magic will rub off on modern languages which have also suffered from students voting with their feet.
Part of its attractiveness for schools is that it aims to ease the transition to first year at university, with curriculum overlaps to match e-learning programmes at Heriot-Watt. The university believes this will be extended through the Interactive University which it has established with others to give online access to Scottish degrees throughout the developing world.
Professor Leitch, whose driving ambition behind Scholar has been a major factor in its success, suggests one of the reasons for its achievements has been its blend of the old and the new.
"I don't believe in pure e-learning," he told The TES Scotland. "Scholar is about releasing staff time to interact more with students and to encourage student-based learning. Unlike conventional e-learning systems, it is designed actually to strengthen links between the student and tutors."
The key ingredient is said to be supported e-learning. "This is not a 'put your pupils in front of the computer' model," Gerry Toner, Scholar's director, says. Mr Toner believes the quality of the materials and the accompanying staff development also appeal to schools.
"We may have made a 100 per cent impact on the education authorities, but to make an impact in the classroom we need staff development. Our focus there is on e-learning and online technology which many teachers, even science teachers, are still not entirely comfortable with. It's certainly a challenge to teachers but not a threat."
The enthusiasm for Scholar is shared by Malcolm Lewis, headteacher of Queensferry High, where as many as 40 per cent of the 200 or so pupils in the fifth and sixth years use it at any one time as part of their course.
"We are very supportive of it and believe it's the way forward," Mr Lewis said. "It's a balanced online package with interactive and assessment elements which provide feedback for students and teachers. It's not just notes on a computer screen."
Heriot-Watt's internal evaluation shows that students following Scholar programmes are getting better grades and failure rates have been reduced.
External scrutiny is now being carried out by Strathclyde University.
Professor Leitch said: "Once the online learning genie is out of the bottle, we cannot put it back in. It challenges us in the universities because students will increasingly be arriving who are used to interactive learning and getting deeper into their subjects." He envisages a shift from "less lecturer transmission towards more tutorials and self-study, which will mean a move from teaching to learning".
Meanwhile, the sky is the limit for Scholar. Norway is using its maths materials, translated into Norwegian, and it is poised to expand into England and Malaysia.
Professor Leitch believes this could be a huge untapped market, leading to major bonuses for Scottish colleges and universities since exposure to Scholar can mean students being able to skip the first year of a Scottish four-year degree.