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Your route to virtual classrooms

New CPD courses can help teachers realise the potential of virtual learning environments, writes Douglas Blane

One of the most difficult aspects of any job is figuring out when time and effort spent learning a new skill or exploring a resource might be amply repaid. The problem is particularly acute in teaching because of unrelenting daily demands and the rapid pace of advances in educational technology.

A virtual learning environment is an immensely powerful tool and one that teachers will become familiar with in time through the Scottish Schools Digital Network. Right now, however, such environments are rarely used to their full potential because staff are not yet aware of the power and flexibility they offer for teaching, learning and management.

Professional development is the answer, says Gerry Toner, the director of Heriot-Watt University's Scholar programme, which provides a virtual learning environment for S5 and S6 students of science, maths and modern languages.

"Teachers are very comfortable using Scholar demonstrations and animations to make their lessons more appealing," he says. "It's the broader aspects and capabilities that aren't yet used as much as we would like.

"E-learning is dramatic and multi-faceted, so people often find something they like right away," he says, "but they then tend to stick with what they know."

A big advantage of Scholar and the courses on using it offered by the Heriot-Watt team is that both come at no cost to schools because all 32 authorities have bought into the programme.

Courses offered range from "Entry Level" and "Scholar in the Classroom" to "Managing and Monitoring Learning" and two new ones, "Assessment for Learning" and "Personalised Learning - Planning and Revision".

"Scholar is very powerful for planning and revision, but kids need to be shown how," says Mr Toner."If you compare it with a revision site like BBC Bitesize, it's the difference between a textbook and the slim revision notes that you can buy."

The former can be used for revision, but not without a little thought and effort, which is no bad thing, since active involvement means the revision is usually more effective than using notes produced by someone else.

"Take a tried and tested revision technique: postcards with questions on one side and answers on the other," says Mr Toner. "In Scholar you can do that by lifting bits out of the course and into PowerPoint. You can then make it flashy, memorable and personalised. It's a very effective way of revising.

"But teachers need to show the kids how to do it, so we need to show the teachers."

Assessment for Learning may seem a surprising course to find in a suite of CPD for using a virtual learning environment, but Mr Toner explains how Scholar's formative assessment reporting system works.

"When a student submits work to the computer, which automatically marks it and sends it back, there is some scope for reflection, learning and trying again."

However, feedback from the computer is not as rich as it would be from a teacher. So a system is set up that exploits the best qualities of the human teacher - understanding, insight, compassion - and the computer - speed, accuracy, tirelessness and availability.

"So it is not a substitution model because we don't replace the teacher," says Mr Toner."It's an added dimension model.

"The technology and the curriculum content already exist to enable teachers to work that way. We are now providing the CPD to show them how."

Another new offering from Scholar is a suite of online courses for teachers. "It gives teachers first-hand experience of the kind of thing they are asking their students to do,", says Mr Toner. "That is a valuable learning experience for any teacher.

"We will be expanding the range of online CPD modules, but we have no intention of abandoning face-to-face delivery, because we know teachers still want that, just as students do.

"So that model of e-learning that we use for a student's learning applies equally well to a teacher's CPD."'Assessment for Learning' and 'Personalised Learning -Planning and Revision' one-day courses are available in June, September and October and otherwise on request

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