Have you read the Sunday Times piece (14 July 2012) An online class apart? It discusses a US firm’s plan to set up a Free School offering lessons over the web. On the one hand it’s claimed it could transform education in the UK, on the other, it is the end of the (education) world as we know it.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. Mention Free Schools in some quarters and the pitchforks come out. Mention importing anything educational from the US and the lynch party will be there before you’ve finished your sentence. Yet, we know Free Schools thrive in Scandinavia and that Ark Academies are based on the US based Kipp Charter schools and the Ark Network is one of the biggest academy chains in the country, boasting enviable success.
Predictably politics is right in the middle of the latest educational buzz. The unions see on-line schools as a threat to teachers, believing Gove will use it as an excuse to employ less teachers as a virtual school would need less staff. This time round the application failed, but there is no need for fear here; in fact this sort of schooling is not unique to the US and should not sends tremors of anxiety through us all. It should add to what is available and give a whole range of children and families more choice.
Do you know that over 80,000 British children are home-schooled? There are out of mainstream education for a variety of reasons including religious, health, bullying and for ideological reasons.
Did you know that in places like Australia many children can’t get to a mainstream traditional place of education and that many of them are educated at home through distance education? I’m sure you’ve heard of the School of the Air – which broadcasts primary education out of Alice Springs and Katherine in the Northern Territory. These institutions have been educating children in some of the remotest parts of the world for years, initially over the radio, now through a range of on-line and super-duper technology. For secondary and post-primary education there is the NT Open Education Centre in Darwin.
These three schools have been delivering high quality learning outside the classroom box to generations of happy students – students who go on to university and careers just as traditionally educated children do.
I worked as Head of English, ESL, Literacy and the Library at NTOEC for five years. They were some of the most interesting years of my career. As well as the usual imperatives from succeeding governments who were all going to make education – especially Aboriginal education – better, we were at the forefront of technological endeavours in Education. We had our own print based materials based on the curriculum, teaching students from grade 8-12, so right up to university entrance. We were moving into a stronger on-line presence (I’m sure they’re there now!), using email as well as other emerging technologies to interact with our students.
Students did not suffer from not being in a classroom. Students had a weekly phone call with each of their teachers; small classes could be set up across the miles through the wonders of technology where poetry could be taught, discussed and debated. Students could email (if they had access) as and when; were entitled to visits; as well as coming into town for a yearly residential week of classes, to be in the ‘big city’ of Darwin and to meet other students.
Let me detail the range of students such an establishment can cater for. And this is highly pertinent to the UK situation as well. Students come in all shapes and sizes with a plethora of needs. Traditional education can’t hope to effectively cater for all: in fact, we know it doesn’t.
Distance – or on-line – education does a great deal for many students. Not only those for whom mainstream school is not available, to wit, distance ed’s traditional audience, the student out on a station, helping mum and dad run the place, or on a remote Aboriginal community where mum and dad work. But also for students who travel, who have been expelled, or who can’t cope in mainstream for whatever reason; girls who got pregnant and couldn’t go back to school with a baby; prisoners; RAAF personnel needing to up-grade their qualifications; Aboriginal students who need to move beyond primary education. We also had students who were travelling overseas, or who were ill and couldn’t cope at school. We had some who were being deliberately home-schooled, but not as many as you might think.
Some interesting things happen in this type of educational setting. Students, free from the off-task, time wasting antics of their fellow classmates, make better progress. They can complete subjects quicker than within the traditional time allocation and be accelerated through their studies. Or they can take longer, go deeper, ensure understandings. They can do nothing but English or Art for a term, then go onto History and Maths and Science. Students can make informed choices about their own pathways through the KS3 & 4 (equivalent) quagmire. They know what has to happen in order to get to KS5 and beyond, but they can make their own choices, supported by parents and school.
Our young mothers were able to take the maximum time allowed for KS5 subjects, coming in to the building on days they could get child-care to study intensely in the library with on-hand teacher support and guidance. We set up interest groups and extra-curricular stuff for local students who had fallen through the cracks of ‘real schools’.
Class sizes were smaller, due to the more intense relationships and one to one contact. My department was no less qualified, or devoted to their students. Student-teacher ratios still applied and we were not a significantly smaller department for our numbers compared to traditional schools.
Fear of the unknown stops us moving ahead. Students thrive in a variety of educational structures. Distance education, or on-line learning, is one that offers much to many. It can be a challenge to teach in that environment, to not see the shiny faces in front of you – although I guess Skype will have sorted that out – to not have the interaction of a whole group. But the intensity of the experience for some students is reward enough. You’ll be more challenged as a teacher here, the students are more independent, more likely to know what they need and how to get it.
The on-line future is here. It will be part of the UK teaching and learning experience very soon. It should be now. It’s time for all involved in education in the UK to move into the 21st century –put students first, their needs, their differences and stop trying to make education a one-size fits all. Who knows, perhaps one day they’ll stop examining everything that moves in the belief that it’s the only way to know if a child has learnt anything???