The rise of the internet and video calls has made distance learning easier than ever before. Now a group of tutors is developing plans for what has been billed as the world's first complete virtual college.
The proposed Virtual Sixth Form College would - pending approval from England's Department for Education - aim to replicate a traditional 16-18 college experience for hundreds of students across the country. The difference is that their classes would be watched on video, with both student and teacher working from the comfort of their own homes.
The concept of the virtual school is not a new one: the K12 for-profit organisation operates virtual charter schools covering most of the US. But the backers of the UK venture say they will provide a full educational experience, including pastoral support, which has not been offered elsewhere.
"The one thing that has been missing is that most forms of virtual education seem to have a lack of support for students," said Robert Ellis, one of the six distance-learning tutors behind the plans.
"There is no reason why pastoral support should be missed," he added. "We should provide as much support as a traditional college. I envisage it would be for the full spectrum of students, from those who would not be able to access a college in their area to those who, for medical reasons, would find it difficult to travel."
While the college would have a small physical site in the Midlands of England, which would host some administrative staff and occasional residential courses for students, all teaching and pastoral contact would be conducted using videoconferencing technology.
"In the US there are also both private and publicly funded online high schools (for students aged 14-18)," Mr Ellis said, "but these put a lot of reliance on resource-based independent work and do not seem to make much use of videoconferencing to produce a close and effective relationship between teacher and student.
"We aim to produce an effective virtual sixth-form college by giving as much teaching online, with as much structure and support, as a conventional college."
The money saved by not operating a full-time campus would instead be invested in providing A-level qualifications in 41 subjects, including minority ones such as Latin and archaeology, which many colleges are not able to offer.
Young people enrolled with the college would be encouraged to interact with each other and run clubs and societies, and could even have time set aside for sports activities. Students would be expected to pay for the computer kit they would need to join the college themselves.
David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association in the UK, said: "In theory, we wouldn't have a problem with it, if it helps young people who, for whatever reason, find it difficult to travel to a college. But we wouldn't want our brand to be used inappropriately; sixth- form colleges have a reputation for being high-performing institutions."
The backers of the new college have already held discussions with the DfE ahead of submitting a formal application later this year. The intention is to open the college to an initial 350 students in 2015.
Bob Harrison, a member of the Further Education Learning and Technology Action Group, which advises the UK government, said there was a "gap in the market" for an online-only institution.
"Lots of people in the further education sector are still in an analogue mindset," he said. "This is the direction of travel. From an efficiency point of view, if you have a sixth-form college offering knowledge-based courses, it could be a very effective approach."
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