When I started teaching Physics (some considerable time ago) I would occasionally make use of an Open University video clip to illustrate some particular point at A level. The characteristic brass fanfare still summons up visions of blurry pictures of OU lecturers with unusual facial hair and a curious dress sense. This was the cutting edge of online learning in the 1970s with free television transmissions broadcast, in the days before video recorders, at unsocial hours in the early morning.
Higher education is moving online at a considerable rate. Stimulated by a number of American universities which are committed to making all of their course materials available online and free, UK universities are following suit. The Open University has been the UK leader in this field for many years through giving free tasters of their courses to encourage people to sign up as well as making materials available through iTunes. These initiatives have been fantastically successful and popular with thousands of people able to download lectures and discussions on a huge range of different academic topics at no cost. I completed an online course on Oceanography, produced by Southampton University, last summer and really enjoyed the materials and the forums, ably moderated by several PhD students.
If the universities are to move beyond catering for the casual enquirer, and provide full support for an online student intent on gaining a qualification, many dilemmas present themselves. How should online students be assessed and accredited given the potential for cheating? How should free offerings of course materials online be reconciled with a £9250 tuition fee for students attending the physical university? How should practical work, essential for many courses, be incorporated? The momentum of this change appears unstoppable, however, stemming from the laudable desire to allow any motivated student, in possession of an internet connection, however geographically, culturally or economically remote from a university campus, to benefit from the liberating power of education regardless of their financial means. Perhaps the most likely outcome is for all students to enjoy the teaching materials, whether videoed lectures or podcasts, reading lists or notes, and the computer based assessments for free. Participants would, however, have to pay for work to be marked, to receive extra explanations or interactions with university staff whether in person or via webcasts and to pay for examinations. In practical subjects the standard Open University model of the summer school spent at a real, rather than virtual, institution is surely capable of adaptation to suit a new age.
What does this revolution mean for schools? Google has already stripped teachers of their dubious claim to omniscience with facts and figures freely available. The rise of video lesson snippets, animations and podcasts seems destined to unseat any similar claim that teachers could maintain a monopoly on explanations. GCSEpod provides Stockport Grammar School pupils with animated videos covering every part of the GCSE courses. Sites such as MyMaths also provide endless practice for the motivated pupil. SGS Online is a useful compilation of revision materials, extension tasks and links and ‘Show my Homework’ allows extra links and documents to be published in support of homework tasks. Entirely online schools flourish in many more remote parts of the world to overcome the travelling difficulties faced by some students. (Travelling difficulties here mean a thousand miles of desert terrain rather than congestion on the A6).
It seems unlikely to me that schools will disappear to be replaced by home-study, however tempting the cost savings may be, but there is no doubt that schools have to reflect afresh upon their organisation, their reasons for existence and their priorities. Fortunately, there are many reasons for schools to be very positive about what they offer to pupils which extend well beyond childcare.
Capable teachers have always focused upon the pedagogical skills of planning and delivering lessons that take real account of their pupils’ strengths and weaknesses, tailoring activities to the needs of individuals and groups with a level of experience and subtlety that is likely to elude an online course. High quality feedback to pupils, whether oral or written, will remain important as a means for developing learning and can only be individual and effective if set in the context of a successful teacher-pupil relationship, something which is difficult to establish online but easy to develop through the regular meetings characteristic of the traditional school timetable. Most pupils strive to please teachers whom they respect and are thus motivated to produce high quality work even if they are less than enamoured with a particular topic. Good lessons, in any case, inspire interest; teachers are motivators of pupil learning, asking the right question at the right moment and producing experiences that arouse and engage pupils’ curiosity. Teachers also enable constructive interaction between pupils in a way that is easier to do in a physical rather than a virtual room, allowing them to learn through discussion and from the ideas and knowledge of others. The pastoral aspects of schools will remain, providing a safe place for the pupils and caring for and advising them as they develop towards adulthood, as well as providing the consistent values and expectations which promote a sense of security and engender responsibility towards others. The physical nature of the school community also plays a crucial part in learning, not only in terms of academic work but in terms of teaching pupils how to manage a variety of relationships. Facilities for practical work in science, art and technology lessons as well as opportunities for team sport, music ensembles and drama are essential and it is difficult to envisage how all of these could be provided by other agencies or in a virtual environment.
Schools will need to become more flexible in providing access to online resources and support pupils in learning at different rates but the concept of a physical school will continue to be essential regardless of technological progress.