An increasing number of international schools are partnering with online learning providers to find virtual ways to deliver the English curriculum. There are both benefits and drawbacks.
This summer, an estimated two million people from 90 countries will file into exam halls to take tests with the British Council — GCSE, AS and A-levels. Adorned for being a passport to prestigious western universities and for being in English, British curriculum exams are the most widely used globally. These days may be numbered.
An increasing number of international schools are partnering with online learning providers to find virtual ways to deliver the English curriculum. Pearson, for example, will offer an online Spanish A-level from next September, with more languages expected to follow. Students will be able to access tutors, resources and exams digitally, from wherever and whenever it suits them. They will pay £1,000 each per year, or £900 if five or more students from the same school enter the course.
Demand for a virtual British curriculum is growing
The number of schools signing up for online qualifications from Web Education, a UK-based company which delivers digital education, including GCSEs and A-levels in French and German, has surged by more than 800% from five in 2015/16 to nearly 50 in 2016/17. To complete an A-level in languages with Web costs £2,700, while the GCSE is around £1,000.
A number of factors have contributed to the trend. One is a lack of qualified teaching talent. There is huge demand for teachers at British curriculum international schools. While schools find no shortage of applications – up to 150 people are applying for one job in some instances, according to Tom Arnold, director at recruitment firm Compass Teaching – it can be difficult to fill positions in subjects such as languages, because most people applying for jobs at British curriculum schools are English-speaking.
Schools may also be pivoting to online learning to improve efficiency
Much of online education is independent – students receive a timetable of their digital lessons and log in to watch a tutor, which is usually a pre-recorded video. They usually type responses, or use a headset and microphone to speak. This is a much easier process to manage for schools, which need only provide the content and have an observer check that pupils are tuning in.
There are multiple benefits to online education
Some teachers argue that technology makes learning more collaborative and interactive. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Matt Britland, director of education consultancy Realise Learning. “Google Docs, for example, enables us to work collaboratively with several people on one document that is automatically updated in real-time. When students see the work and what other people add, it is exciting.
“And they can do it wherever they are. It absolutely does facilitate group projects and collaborative learning.”
Working with technology can help improve students’ career prospects
“There are massive technology skills gaps,” says Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet, operating partner of IBIS Capital, which invests in education technology. “The more we expose kids to tech – robotics, digital and collaboration tools – the better prepared they will be for the workplace.”
Another benefit is that multimedia lessons are a good way to engage children whose ability to absorb information has been shaped by continuous exposure to technology from a young age. Mark Chambers, CEO of education technology association Naace, says: “That is true. We have been able to find evidence that student engagement in online learning is taking place at a higher level and because of that, learning can be improved.”
There is much criticism of online education
Some experts are concerned that it can promote isolation rather than the peer-to-peer learning that the internet is famed for. Paola Paulino, director of immersive technology education at International School of Nanshan Shenzhen, says: “There should be a balance. Technology can be leveraged as a tool to help kids to be creative, communicate from a distance and present their work. But young kids in particular need to go outside and play and make friends. It is important for students to not always be ‘plugged in’.”
Schools also face big challenges in adopting and using digital content. A lack of time and adequate training are common barriers. “That is a tremendous issue. It’s not just product-specific training that is needed for teachers; it’s training in the context of the subject being taught,” says Chambers.
But he believes that online learning will grow at international schools as evidence begins to mount that it can raise quality standards. “We are passionate about the appropriate use of technology to improve education,” he says. “It definitely has the opportunity to do that.”