There’s a lot to think about for teenagers and their parents as sixth form looms. What subjects to study? What curriculum to follow? School or college? But most people don’t consider the choices available to students for how to learn. Today, that’s something more students and educators should think about, as digital learning options are now being offered in some schools as an alternative to traditional classroom learning.
This is a way of learning that schools delivering the International Baccalaureate have been able to offer to their Diploma Programme (IBDP) students for the past five years.
What’s it like to learn online?
When people think about learning online, they often think about the approach taken by MOOCs – the ‘massive open online courses’ now being offered by many universities. However, in contrast to these, the digital learning model available to IBDP students is highly supported and well-structured to help young people develop the skills of learning independently online while they learn their subject too.
With the IBDP digital courses, students are at the centre of the learning and work in a subject ‘class’ with other online learners who are based in schools all over the world. The students access the learning on their own, at a time and in a place that best suits each one of them. But they are strongly supported by their online teacher who provides weekly objectives and assignments, guiding and connecting directly with the students, sometimes as a group and also one-to-one.
The students work on the assignments both individually and collaboratively. Group work brings its own challenges as students have to consider different time zones, communication techniques, and ways to work together, but it has many benefits too. Haydn Wiles is a Year 13 student at St Benedict’s Catholic School in Alcester, Warwickshire which has been offering online courses to its sixth form students for three years. Haydn, who is studying economics online, says “I have people in my class from China, South America, India. Their concerns about their own countries are completely different and that’s really important; to see different perspectives and viewpoints.”
What are the benefits of online learning?
This broadening of perspective is just one of the benefits of learning online. This year, a research study by the University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE) explored the impact of digital learning on 16-19 year olds and its influence on their learning experience at university. 58 of the 108 university students researched had studied at least one two-year subject online as part of their IBDP.
The students highlighted many advantages of their digital learning experience. They reported that they’d gained proficiency in a range of online learning tools that they were now using as part of their university working practice. They said that the online learning experience had helped them develop confidence in using technology to source information, and that they were more likely to carry out their research online. They felt that, in comparison with other students, they were less likely to need to turn to their university lecturers for practical help. And, importantly, students believed studying online had helped them to become independent learners, able to manage their own time – an essential component of learning success in higher education.
All the online students interviewed said that developing their digital learning skills within the supported environment of their school had been a beneficial experience that was now effectively helping their university study.
From school to university
There is increasing recognition of the shift from school to university as students move from the highly supported learning environment of the former to the very independent study approach of the latter. The IOE research emphasised this fact, suggesting that a good online learning experience at school helps prepare students for that shift; helping them to develop the ability to work with a whole range of online media, and to develop an awareness of managing their personal progress which university students recognise as an essential part of their study requirement.
So what does that mean for parents and educators? We should be aware of the increasing digital options available to today’s young learners, recognise the value of digital learning in today’s world, be prepared to embrace new learning approaches for our students that we ourselves may find unfamiliar, acknowledge the benefits that well-structured online learning can provide to students during their school years, know how we can identify approved and accredited options to make them available to our students, and support them as they take on a challenging but crucial new way of learning that will prepare them well for their future learning needs – in university and beyond.
About the Author
Edward Lawless is the Principal of Pamoja Education which has been delivering online IBDP courses to students around the world since 2009. You can read the full IOE research report and find out more about online learning courses for 16-19 year olds at http://www.pamojaeducation.com