Virtual lessons no ‘panacea’, says trust’s technology director

Academy trusts that want to set up “virtual centres of excellence” should be “cautious” about expected results, warns a technology director at a chain that already delivers online lessons.

The education green paper published last month encourages trusts to educate their high-attaining pupils in “centres of excellence”, which can be “virtual” to get around potential geography issues.

The David Ross Education Trust (DRET) has this week launched a new ICT package across its 33 schools, which could be used to deliver virtual lessons in the future.

Other virtual schools, such as for-profit online school InterHigh, have become more popular in recent years.

But Dominic Norrish, the group director of technology at United Learning Trust (ULT), which rolled out its own online technology programme in September last year, said virtual learning was “no way a panacea for geographical problems” at academy chains.

“It is really very difficult to make virtual lessons work,” he told Schools Week.

Students who need direct support from adults find it quite hard to learn at a distance

“Students who need direct support from adults find it quite hard to learn at a distance because all of the traditional things that keep students on track in a face-to-face environment, such as eye contact, are taken away.

“I would be cautious about expecting immediate results. The technology is not the problem, it is the model of education.”

ULT’s sixth-formers access online A-level lessons in economics and physics if their local school cannot “justify the expense or manage to recruit an expert teacher”.

Students sit in a classroom with a member of staff and take part in the lesson via video link with a specialist subject teacher within the trust.

But Norrish said this type of teaching only benefited students who could learn independently.

“As adults we expect young people to be switched on to this way of learning and we almost treat them as if they are at a university level of independence, which often just isn’t there.”

DRET’s new ICT package includes professional development for teachers to help them to make the most of new technology in the classroom, as well as online resources for students with a virtual library and lesson planner.

Guy Shearer, head of ICT at DRET, said that over time the “end game” could be “full-on virtual teaching” but that would have to be developed “over several years”.

“The lessons would need to be at least as good as having a teacher in the room with you, otherwise students won’t have a good experience and results will not be good.”

Academy trust Ark is also due to start its first “blended learning” school next September, which will include pupils using online videos as a partial substitute for teachers.

A spokesperson for Ark said: “We believe that, done well, blended learning could have a meaningful impact on teaching and learning.”

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