'Virtual college' spreads its net to every school in Scotland

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Almost all S5 and S6 students aiming at higher education within 18 months are likely to be involved in a "virtual college" network that is rapidly revolutionising Advanced Higher teaching and is shortly to spread to the Highers.

More than six out of 10 secondaries have signed up for the Scholar online learning initiative, led by Heriot-Watt University, and more are set to join web-based interactive learning through a linked Scottish Executive-backed scheme. Fourteen FE colleges will be involved in the Scholar programme from August.

Some 900 teachers will undergo specialist training this term, a figure that underlines the escalating interest in the Scholar scheme.

It was launched last summer with ministerial backing and has swiftly gained credibility in its pilot year in four east of Scotland authorities and three colleges. Around 1,000 students have taken Advanced Higher courses in maths, physics, chemistry, biology and computing and 14,000 will be involved next session.

Around 20 authorities, including two of the largest, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, are joining what many regard as one of the most exciting developments in Scottish education which has come as a direct result of the Higher Still programme. Councils are charged pound;8,000 to pound;20,000 a year to register all students with Heriot-Watt.

Schools are able to offer courses they might have been unable to provide and at different levels without incurring heavy additional costs. Edinburgh, one of the four pilot councils, ditched a previous plan to set up a sixth-year college for pre-university courses.

The rapid take-up of Scholar was described s "absolutely incredible" by Professor Roy Leitch, assistant principal at Heriot-Watt. "We have evaluated the effectiveness of these methods and results are better. The highest achievers achieve the same but those at the bottom are much better as they are more motivated.

"The self-paced nature of learning is important. People can work at a time when it's convenient to them and therefore become more productive. The teachers' role is enhanced through this method. It allows teachers to concentrate on the pupils, not on the content - but it took us five years to realise that."

The university took on specialist writing teams to produce new materials for Advanced Highers - the equivalent to first-year courses - and backed them with technical support. Ronnie Gillies, Edinburgh's curricular advice manager, described the city's experience as "tremendously promising" and the materials as "very high quality", although schools were still feeling their way.

In the longer term, senior pupils may not have to come to school every day, provided they are logged on at home, in a library or study centre.

Eric Melvin, head of Currie High, Edinburgh, said maths and physics staff spoke "very highly" of the materials and approach, as do students. "We are not at the point of students logging in at home but we are changing our existing way of teaching and looking at seminar work."

Mr Melvin believes the approach provides a better preparation for university courses which are moving swiftly to IT-based learning. Only five students took Advanced Higher physics this year but 19 are taking it next session as word spreads.

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