Online learning could plug the gap

9th July 2010 at 01:00
It's a simple truth that Scotland's take-up of digital learning resources remains disappointingly patchy; both among individual teachers and across different schools.

This was the main theme of the recent 10th anniversary Scholar conference, held at Heriot-Watt University, where we examined the role of online learning within an economic environment of growing pressure on teaching resources and a wide range of curriculum challenges for educationalists in Scotland.

Not surprisingly, I am an outspoken champion of online learning, since the Scholar programme from Heriot-Watt University currently leads the world as an interactive, web-based learning resource. Yet Scotland's schools do not always lead the world in embracing this technology. There are excellent examples where this happens, yet the digital revolution which has occurred in most households remains lacking in some of our schools.

In Europe, for example, there is clear research on the benefits brought about by online learning, helping to level the playing field between areas of different economic and social demographics as well as for pupils living and studying in more remote communities.

In Scotland, we are even more fortunate, since the Scholar programme is already highly developed for Higher and Advanced Higher subjects and offers some of the best teaching resources available in Europe, designed by some of the best teachers.

Once again, 31 of the 32 education authorities in Scotland are financially supporting Scholar for the next three years, but our research clearly shows that take-up is best within areas of high economic activity: arguably the opposite to where resources should be directed.

It is no longer the case that ownership of broadband is a deterrent: 62 per cent of Scottish households have access to the internet, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Virtually every secondary school in Scotland has access to the same online resources, meaning that all schools could conceivably offer minority subjects, such as Gaelic or Mandarin, with a dedicated online teacher being moderated by educational technology including Glow, the schools' intranet.

More mainstream subjects, for example modern languages for which small class sizes remain a deterrent, especially in the present economic climate, can also be run across school consortia, with online tutors sharing some of the teaching.

Scholar has this month signed an agreement with Scottish Borders Council and Borders College to support a pilot project in which students in Higher computing and psychology will be taught, in part, through a "virtual classroom", which can only serve to enhance traditional models of teaching and offer students a wider choice of subjects.

We have to replace the costly examinations to focus on learning, rather than "teaching to the test". Assessment for the benefit of the students is already built into Scholar. Instead of written exams, the technology already exists for continual e-assessment throughout pupils' courses.

E-assessment technology has moved on and can be used for higher-order skills implicit in the four Curriculum for Excellence capacities. Cisco, Intel and Microsoft issued a "call for action" in 2009 to mobilise international, political and business communities to transform educational assessment as a global priority. A telling statement is that this international group wishes to examine the links between 21st-century skills and the traditional outcome measures of school systems. Not only are fundamental questions being posed by some of the world's "blue chip" companies, but, given the realities of reduced budgets, can we really afford not to use technology to use our scarce resources as effectively as possible?

This view is shared by Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, an umbrella organisation which runs OCR, one of the major examination boards in England. He has stated that traditional examinations are likely to disappear within 10 to 15 years, to be replaced by computerised testing. He said: "The likelihood is that in the next 10 to 15 years it will change almost out of recognition in that, by the end of that period, you'll be able to do exams more or less on demand, on screen. You can make the learning more valid, and the technology can enhance the way people engage in the subject."

No one at Scholar would ever argue that online learning is a substitute for good traditional teaching, or for the social benefits pupils derive from a stimulating school environment. But in these times of economic challenges, I will certainly be arguing that Scotland is selling its pupils short by a certain reluctance to explore fully the benefits of online teaching resources.

Used in conjunction with traditional teaching resources, digital learning massively increases the scope and range of courses available to all pupils. The freedom to learn independently is one of the cornerstones of the Curriculum for Excellence but, with 21st-century technology, the feedback from tests can be instantaneous and allows the student to direct his or her further study.

Sadly, the fact is that digital teaching - our best defence to ensure everyone has access to the same learning opportunities within every single school - is becoming more polarised, reflecting the wide gap in performance in examination results.

The gap between digital take-up in the most and least advantaged schools in Scotland is defying the ethos of Curriculum for Excellence. This is a situation that education leaders cannot allow to continue.

Professor Phillip John is dean of science and engineering at Heriot-Watt University and executive chair of the Scholar programme.

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