Will schools be replaced by on-line learning with students studying from home over the internet? Probably not: at least according to a recent US survey. A major report found that across 17 different states students showed significantly weaker academic performance in maths and reading in virtual schools compared with the conventional school system. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34671952).
This will probably come as disappointing news to the booming educational technology sector which has promoted virtual schools as a way of allowing pupils to progress at their own rate. There is no doubt that for some students in remote areas of the world, students at home with health problems and students who move around a lot virtual schools will be important but not for the vast majority.
The problem with virtual schools, as any teacher might predict, is the difficulty of keeping the on-line students focused on their work. Whilst all students have some capacity to learn independently, with this capacity generally increasing with age, few students under the age of 18 can learn effectively without extensive input from the teacher. The internet can supply animations, simulations, text, images, videos of explanations and even live conversation but not the inspiration that comes from an effective and face-to-face relationship between student and teacher. The teacher can ask the right questions and provide the right resources to stimulate interest, encourage the student with praise for their efforts and crucially compel the student to work on those days and at those subjects when motivation is scarce. The teacher can constantly vary the mix of activities and the mood to suit the group with a degree of subtlety than cannot possibly be achieved on-line. Subjects like Physics, my own subject, require regular practical work not only to hone experimental skills but also to strengthen theoretical understanding and to develop links between new concepts and their real-world applications. Experiments themselves can also help pupils to remember new ideas as well as providing inspiration: beginning a sequence of lessons on static electricity through charging a pupil until their hair stands on end is deservedly a classic starter activity. A video of an experiment is just not the same.
Many students will freely acknowledge that the quality of the relationship with their teacher is the key determining factor in their progress, their level of satisfaction and their desire to learn the subject at a higher level; rightly or wrongly students work hard to please their teacher. A video chat is seldom inspirational; the intangible sense of classroom dynamic which carries students along through the harder or duller sections of the curriculum is lost. The harsh reality is that without the alternate inspiration, praise and discipline of a skilled (and human) teacher progress will always be restricted.
Of course technology has a huge role to play in modern education but in supplementing traditional lessons rather than replacing them. At Birkdale the older students are allowed to use their own internet enabled devices on our wifi system under the direction of the teachers. Students use their smart phones to photograph or video demonstrations and experiments, look up words, browse websites and access their school computer files. Filters on the wifi system prevent students from straying onto inappropriate websites and restrict the temptations of social media. Clearly the students would rather use their 3G signal, without these restrictions, but the wifi system is much faster and teachers ultimately have the power of device confiscation should misuse be discovered. The students can communicate with their teachers through email and can access a huge number of resources harvested from the internet or written by the teachers at Birkdale. This ‘blended’ learning combines the best of traditional teaching with the obvious opportunities of technology but still leaves the relationship between teacher and student at the heart of learning.
I am amazed that some schools entirely ban students from using mobile phones during the school day (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32771253) claiming an increase in examination results. (The study cited on the bbc website has been much criticised for some rather biased sampling). Their motivation is entirely correct: to prevent misuse of social media, the access of pornography and general distraction from school work. However, a total ban, sacrificing the potential benefits of this technology, cannot be the best way forward. It is surely better to phase in the use of the technology in an age appropriate way, educating the students and monitoring their use to prevent potential problems. In addition few people would argue with the premise that for students to have a mobile phone helps them and their parents to feel safer about their journeys to and from school.
Smart phones are undoubtedly the quickest way of looking things up and an integral part of modern life. To deny students this tool is reminiscent of the fifteenth century abbot Johannes Trithemius who was unwilling to allow his monks to take advantage of that dangerous innovation the printing-press in producing copies of the scriptures. His argument was that the act of copying by hand was hard and built character. It also provided something for the monks to do, thus keeping them from the temptations of idleness. (No hyper-link here – try your own internet search for more information on Johannes or visit a library!). The parallels with those who argue that looking things up in printed books is somehow more intrinsically virtuous than an internet search are obvious; to argue that precious lesson time should be deliberately squandered on a slower activity is simply ridiculous.
So technology, and its transforming power, is here to stay, even in the often backward looking world of education. Schools and pupils just have to learn how to use it and manage it for best results.