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Virtual college to reach 40,000

THE rapidly expanding "virtual college" that is bringing interactive online learning to thousands of senior pupils and college students is backed by pound;700,000 from the Scottish Executive, Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, pledged last week.

The Executive views the Scholar programme, led by Heriot-Watt University, along with Scottish Knowledge, as an indication of how schools will be modelled in the future. Two years ago, the university was first into the new e-learning environment with a package aimed at Advanced Higher and first-year university.

Some 1,200 students in the east of Scotland piloted the Scholar project materials this session but Executive finance will allow around 40,000 pupils in 70 per cent of secondaries to dip into the printed resources in the coming session. Twenty independent schools have also joined. Authorities pay an initial registration fee of around pound;15,000. Edinburgh has already ditched plans for a sixth-form college after signing up.

Mr Stephen told a national conference at Heriot-Watt, through a video link from Banchory Academy in Aberdeenshire: "The virtual college network allows teachers to concentrate on what they do best - teaching - secure in the knowledge that pupils will be using quality resources to increase their knowledge and understanding of the subject."

Professor Roy Leitch, assistant principal at Heriot Watt, who devised the initiative, said Scotland was a world leader in e-learning because of the Scholar scheme. The ability to provide courses for small numbers in sixth year was a key attraction.

An independent evaluation by Glasgow Caledonian University found broad support for the project. It states: "Materials have proved to be adaptable to different contexts. They have been used fairly independently by some students and have been used as key sources or sources just dipped into now and then. There are already examples of the programme enabling the extension of choice in the curriculum of schools and colleges. They are appreciated as a Scottish product specially designed as a comprehensive source for Advanced Higher."

However, the online component was less well used. "This can partly be accounted for by technical difficulties," the researchers state.

Heriot-Watt employed a team of writers, drawn from schools and local authorities, to help. Next session resources will be available for a limited number of Higher subjects.

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