David McCarthy, Director of Education at Sophia High School, answers the question as to whether online schools are the future of Education by reflecting on past mistakes and learning from them
To understand the future, I am a great believer that one has to know and come to terms with what has happened in the past; otherwise, we keep repeating the same mistakes and are doomed never to step off the eternal wheel of what we believe education and progress to be.
The purpose of education throughout the centuries has always, to a greater degree, depended on the economic and political situation of the time – no matter what lofty assertions have been made by educational philosophers. One of the oldest and most far-reaching educational models came down to us from Ancient Greece, which was heavily influenced by their most famous philosopher, Socrates. The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. It was used to foster an incredibly focused system designed for developing statesmen, soldiers and well-informed citizens. Citizens would either become apprentices (agricultural/manual workers) or citizens (noblemen). Women and enslaved people didn’t get a look in!
Across the country, Sparta valued other things. This was a warrior nation and relied on its military might and conquests to run and protect its economy. Spartans believed in a life of ‘discipline, self-denial, and simplicity,’ and so the purpose of education was, simply, to produce an army.
Indeed, whilst we have certainly become more sophisticated, I would argue that the basis of education has not changed a great deal. Simply put, in order to survive, the human species needs to have the tools to be successful. At the end of the day, in able to survive, people need to eat -and to eat they need to have jobs and to learn how to work in those jobs.
The next huge shift in education was during the Victorian times. This is when the philosophical concept of pragmatism was introduced; this, in many ways, went against the ancient Greek philosophy of ‘idealism’. In idealism, the aim of education is to discover and develop each individual’s abilities and full moral excellence, in order to better serve society. The curriculum emphasised matters of the mind: literature, history, philosophy, and religion. Pragmatism is a word that describes a philosophy of “doing what works best.” Originating from the Greek “pragma”, meaning deed, the word has historically described philosophers and politicians who were concerned more with real-world application of ideas, than with abstract notions.
The essence of the pragmatic method is learning through the personal experience of the child. To a pragmatist, education means preparation for practical life. The child should know the art of successfully tackling practical problems and real situations in life. … This philosophy wants the children to do something. Pragmatism sees any concept – belief, science, language, people – as mere components in a set of real-world problems. In other words, we should believe only what helps us learn about the world and require reasonable justification for our actions. The rest of education is superfluous. Pragmatism is very much about education being there to give us knowledge of our place in the world, and the skills to work in it.
This legacy of pragmatism has not changed greatly over the last century or so, and today we still largely view education as being there to give us knowledge of our place in the world, and the skills to work in it. It is based mostly on having a prosperous economic society, where most of the workers are cogs in a wheel. The purpose of going to school is simply to get a job and become a useful and functioning member of society. This benefits society as your taxes fund just about all government departments. It is also based on the premise that not everyone has the same access to education. In general, we will always need more manual workers than, let us say, lawyers or judges. It is not surprising that over 80% of judges in the UK have come from independent schools!
However, in the early part of the 20th century, there was a slight movement towards trying to fully develop the characters of people; that education was not just about serving an economic goal, but should serve a more intrinsic and ethical purpose. This was developed further in John Dewey’s influential work, Democracy and Education. Dewey was a throwback to Ancient Greece. He believed that truth and learning does not happen in the confines of textbooks, but in interactions with people – whether they be your peers, your teachers or your parents. Reflection and discourse were the order of the day! Whilst people still had to get jobs, he wanted this to be incidental to the ethical and moral development of each child in society.
Today, most Government departments would state that they want confident learners who are creative and individual. However, above everything else, they want them to have the ability to work in teams, to be able to take orders and not really question authority, whilst helping the country become more prosperous. In 2015 Nick Gibb (Schools Minister) stated:
“Education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.”
Again, notice how he puts the economic factors first.
It appears to be an oxymoron – whilst they want all its citizens to work as hard as possible to contribute financially to the country, they also want them to be happy doing this, and not to question the order of things. I doubt that working below the minimum wage, as most people do across the world, will bring any person any sort of satisfaction or contentment. They are simply struggling to survive.
What is needed is a paradigm shift in consciousness. Perhaps this can only come about when there has been a massive disruption in our lives. Ironically enough, perhaps due to COVID-19 causing such devasting impact around the world – with both loss of life and financial meltdowns – the time has come to reassess things that are obviously out of date and not working for the majority of people on this planet. Whilst getting a job is important in the long run, it cannot be the sole factor that drives education. We need to get back to the idea that each individual is important and has a voice. Where debating is cherished in schools. Where ideas are challenged, yet differences of opinions are cherished. Something that is currently missing in the world, with all the divisions caused by Brexit and the polarisation of the USA under Donald Trump.
Many educationalists believe the solution may be the blended learning approach that is dictated by online learning. Today, there’s a huge demand from people to learn online; this has only been exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 crisis. Online learning is driving rapid changes in the world. Even before COVID-19, there was already high growth and adoption in education technology; it is estimated that by 2025 the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 Billion! Online education offers students many advantages over physical schools. These include the fact that:
It is easy to use and is more effective
Once you have mastered the basics of home online learning, you will find that your children will complete work more readily, and become better organised. Gone are the days when your children may have forgotten to take their textbook or exercise book to school and, hence, find it difficult to get involved in the lessons. Gone are the days when your children are complaining about backaches because they are carrying heavy books around with them all day in their bag. Gone are the days when your children can not do their homework because they left their diary or their books behind at school. Gone are the days when hours are wasted travelling to school and back again.
The work cannot get lost
Computers, tablets and laptops allow students to send data quickly and to store it effectively (using cloud services) This means that it’s nearly impossible to lose their work. All the key work that the students send to the teachers is saved in the Google Classroom server. The same goes for feedback, and any other form of teacher-student communication: if it happens online, it will be stored safely for further reference.
It offers unlimited access to education resources
Ian Gilbert, a well-known educationalist, once wrote a book Why do I need a teacher when I’ve Got Google? When it comes to eLearning the knowledge out there will always supercede the knowledge of one individual teacher. The use of the internet opens a world of knowledge to them and, best of all, this knowledge is generally free. Children can use online libraries, online courses, education websites, Wikipedia, and even ordinary websites to learn something new every day.
It offers more opportunities for sharing and presentation
Due to online learning, students have all these multimedia tools to present their views and thoughts. They can create presentations, slides with images, include videos to support their points of view. They can share these not only with the other students, teachers and their parents, but with the whole world – if they so wish. This is important, as they can then receive incisive feedback on ways in which they can improve their work.
No work is missed
Students often get left behind if they have been away from school for whatever reason, and these gaps in their education can have an educational impact on their future. One great thing about most online schools is that lessons are recorded. This means that if for any reason, any student misses a lesson, he/she can go back and watch it at a time of their convenience. If they have not understood anything, they can then email the teacher to elaborate on what they have not understood. This is also great for revision, as any student can go back at any time, can access any part of the lesson, can pick up on any concept that they have forgotten about. In a physical school, the lesson is over and no student can go back in a time machine to experience that lesson again.
It offers Individualised learning
We all know that students learn at their own pace. However, in a physical school, students have to learn at the pace that the timetable dictates. They are expected to understand and finish a piece of work in a certain time limit. The students who fall behind are not really catered for, as they need more time to understand information and the key concepts being taught. It is the opposite for the gifted and talented, who often get bored and lack motivation, as they understand things too quickly. These are often left to work on more of the same type of exercises that they have just completed.
With E-Learning, students move at their own pace and are given the time to understand new facts and concepts. Students can pick a time when they feel they are best suited to learn new skills and knowledge. This empowers them.
It improves computer skills
This goes without saying. As they say ‘practice makes perfect’. As students are using computers as their main means of communication and presenting their work, their computers skills will improve week by week. Computers also offer students more of a chance to improve their creative skills, present their work to a wider audience and access constructive feedback.
It offers learning simulations
No longer are we simply limited by our imagination to what something would look like, or how something might work. Through 3d videos, virtual reality etc any student can take a trip to Mars to experience what it looks like; any students can travel back to World War 1 and experience what it was like being in the trenches; any student can travel to any major city in the world and visit its attractions; any student can perform all sorts of scientific experiments in the security and comfort of their own home.
It can be accessed anywhere in the world
So long as there is a good internet connection, online learning can occur anywhere in the world. So, no more fines when you take your children away on holiday. They can continue their studies anywhere in Great Britain and abroad, whilst enjoying the company of their family and soaking up foreign culture.
It is good for the environment
Just think how much carbon monoxide pollution parents are contributing to travelling to and back from school. Electronic books greatly reduce the amount of deforestation.
There are fewer cases of bullying and feeling intimidated in the classroom
Concern over students’ mental health has been on the rise over the last decade, as ever more cases of bullying are reported. Many students feel threatened and insecure at school and feel little is being done to protect them. Obviously, with an online education, it is almost impossible for any type of physical bullying to take place.
Students often do not ask questions or answer questions in a classroom, because they are either worried that other students might think them stupid, or that others might pick on them because they might think that you have some sort of superiority complex – hence the term a ‘teacher’s pet’. Others may simply be too shy to participate.
A lot of research has shown that, with online learning, students are not so self-conscious; student interaction increases as does the diversity of opinion. Many students also prefer to communicate with teachers through the internet rather than in person – perhaps again they do not want the reputation not being a teacher’s pet.
There are also many fewer distractions when learning online. Having been a teacher and educational leader for thirty years, I am always amazed how few students are paying attention to what is being said in the classroom and are distracted by their peers in one form or another; the introduction of mobile phones has certainly not helped this!
Mark Twain had so little regard for physical schools that he once wrote disdainfully:
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
In a perfect world then, this education would provide the key skills and knowledge for students not only to prosper in the workplace but also on a personal level. Students would, hopefully, become much more independent and take charge of their own education. Equally, they would also come to realise that getting a job is not the only reason for getting an education. Self-worth, dealing with relationships, having a moral compass, contributing to society, the culture around you, are all equally (if not more) important that the quest for the perfect job. As is the development of key character traits such as: love, kindness, sense of justice, persistence, grit, optimism, curiosity, creativity etc
To sum up, I do believe that E-learning is the future, despite its disadvantages (obesity caused by lack of exercise, possible mental disorders because of disassociation, access to hate speech, fake news, pornography etc – however, that is another article), It is certainly a booming industry, both in universities and as more and more parents take out their children to be home educated. With E-Learning you are not confined to one physical building or a set of teachers. You are simply a click away from a whole wealth of knowledge. Whenever I have a problem, I simply click on Youtube – whether it is to change a plug, or change a toilet seat (as you can see, I am not considered to be a handyman in my household – although things are slowly improving on that front).
I also believe that this type of education is more democratic. No longer will you be judged by the type of school you attended. This education is accessible to everyone from any part of the world – you just need a facilitator for this to work; which was Ian Gilbert’s conclusion in Why do I need a teacher when I’ve Got Google. No longer do you need a teacher to impart knowledge to you – this can be found on the internet – you need someone to mentor the students’ development; to guide the students through their thought patterns and to facilitate their educational journey. That is why teachers will never be obsolete. As Ian Gilbert concludes in his book:
“Good teachers, they change everything. What’s more, the future of the world depends on them. That’s why I need a teacher when I’ve got Google.”
Having an online school then is the best of both worlds, not only do students get that teacher who can mentor them through their life’s journey (not just in an educational sense), but the students will also have all the advantages I discussed above. Perhaps this type of blended learning using online schools is the future. Perhaps this type of learning will go some way to alleviate the problems we have been facing in education for the last century. This was so well depicted by the late Sir Chris Woodhead (one of my mentors when I was taking my Masters in Educational Leadership) in his seminal book: A Desolation of Learning. After all, the statistics show that very little has been done in educational policies an in Educational Acts of Parliament to move the poorer and most vulnerable onto a more level playing field. I am optimistic that this type of learning will help to solve the injustice that has plagued our students, and create a sense of greater equality, whilst tackling the ever-rising numbers of students who suffer from mental problems which have been greatly exacerbated by the schools they attend.