Eleanor Caldwell watches an online programme which will soon bring Higher and Advance Higher courses to pupils across Scotland
For the 13 Advanced Higher physics pupils at Balerno High school in Edinburgh, the vagaries of Brewster's Law governing the polarisation of light have been given a helpful new focus. On-screen simulation of the law allows them not only to see the effect of light coming in two directions simultaneously, but also to change the angle of incidence and study its effect.
The pupils have just completed the new virtual college Scholar programme which is revolutionising Advanced Higher.
"It makes such a difference to be able to see a 3D, moving picture of a law like this in action," says one Balerno student, and the principal teacher of physics Andrew Moore agrees, explaining that "it can be very difficult to draw this on the board or to represent it clearly enough in a book."
Around 1,000 students across Scotland signed up this year and 14,000 will take part next year.
Written by teams of specialists in conjunction with Heriot-Watt University, the physics and chemistry programmes are two of five Advanced Higher subjects now online through Scholar. Biology, maths and computing are also available. Edinburgh is one of four pilot councils, which pay pound;8,000-pound;20,000 to register students with Heriot-Watt.
Acting principal teacher of chemistry Anne McKerchar says that Scholar occupies four of her chemistry class's seven periods in the week. Practical work in labs and internal assessment projects account for the remainder.
Mr Moore and Mrs McKerchar attended an inservice training day for Scholar at Heriot-Watt University and emphasise the importance of their ongoing teaching role. They monitor students' work and offer assistance in class.
Although Scholar contains integral end-of-unit assessments and students can use its website to find out further information and ask questions, the teachers give students additional work which they set in homework tutorials.
Mr Moore has had concerns that there is insufficient time available to complete all the work of the programme, given the constraints of the course's three national assessment bank tests and other internal assessment requirements.
The teachers and students emphasise the value of the books which accompany Scholar's online material. They are well designed and allow students to make notes, giving written back-up to on-screen work. They appreciate havig a hard copy supplement to technology-based learning. "It can sometimes be difficult to concentrate and too time-consuming having to scroll down large amounts of text," explains one girl.
However, the students enjoy the practical advantages of on-screen work, particularly in review and revision work. "We can drag and drop words and phrases into text, for example, and they just won't go in if they are not correct," says another chemistry student.
In end-of-unit review work, if mistakes are made the program guides them to the right answer step by step. "That's so much more helpful than just finding out you've made a mistake," says one student. "You can go back over the work in your own time."
The chemistry students have also found on-screen experiments useful. One girl demonstrates the reduction of acidified ammonium vanadate solution, using zinc amalgam to show colour changes corresponding to different oxidation stages. This is easier, she comments, than in the lab: she can freeze the screen, rerun each stage and make notes at any point during the experiment.
Specific areas which they have not already studied for Higher, such as acid-base equilibria, have been well presented on Scholar.
Both science groups appreciate being able to work at their own pace. One boy says he prefers to do his online physics work in timetabled classes and free periods in school and to use the book at home. Working on computer at home, they say, is a useful adjunct to class work though not essential. But they agree that they would not want to undertake Scholar-based Advanced Higher work entirely from home, as has been mooted.
Headteacher Rory Mackenzie is delighted with the success of Scholar. While the issue of too small Advanced Higher and Sixth Year Studies classes has not posed a problem at Balerno High, he is pleased that the introduction of Scholar has led Edinburgh City Council to abandon proposals for a sixth year college in the city. "The school needs to keep bright students like these," he says.
With Scholar courses for Advanced Higher business and management studies, modern languages and electrical engineering, as well as for Higher in the final stages of preparation, he anticipates a growth of interest in subjects generated by virtual college schemes. In another advance, Heriot Watt is considering offering Scholar pupils with top grades a fast-track progression straight into a second year degree course.