Heather Rhodes has been a pioneer in online education for over ten years. She is a strong advocate of the potential of technology to transform education. She was the founding Principal of Harrow School Online, the first purpose-designed fully online British education from a leading private school, and a trustee to Svitlo Education, an online school set up to support Ukrainian children whose education has been impacted by the war. More recently, Heather set up her own school, Highgrove Online School, which sets out to provide top-quality British education to ambitious pupils across the world. Heather is particularly interested in the potential of online education for building global communities of learning and increasing the accessibility of exceptional education, with an equal focus on academic success and personal development. Highgrove Online School is her flagship school founded to lead the way in this endeavour.
In recent years, education has undergone a profound transformation, challenging traditional norms and redefining the way we approach schooling. The rise of online schooling, powered by technological advances, is reshaping the educational landscape, offering students unparalleled opportunities and redefining pedagogy.
The trend towards online learning may have been super-charged by the pandemic, but it was firmly in place prior to COVID-19. It reflects a growing desire for education that is tailored to the needs of an individual, departing from the one-size-fits-all approach. We are living in a world where ‘white, no sugar’ has been replaced by ‘double espresso cinnamon lattes with almond milk’. Traditional education has been slow to move any significant distance from an ago-old model where a teacher stands at the front of a class explaining new subject material, while Juan loses interest because it’s far too easy, Aanya feels utterly lost, Jo loses attention and starts flicking paper, and Mia gets distracted by Jo.
Modern online schools upend this traditional approach, using technology to provide differentiation and individualisation of learning. Because online schools are not bound by the constraints of tradition, they tend to be open to experimenting with new teaching methods and approaches, and these innovations hold the potential to reshape education as a whole. This is particularly true for the secondary school/high school sector, where pupils are more adept at adapting to independent learning and where the social aspect of online schooling is less of a challenge, with students entering online school with pre-existing friendship groups, and building on those groups through friendships developed within their new online learning community.
Traditional schools have started to pay attention to what’s happening within online schools due to the academic success stories coming from the sector. In the UK, where pre-university exams serve as benchmarks, students who have attended online school students are achieving exam results that rival those of top independent schools. For example, Harrow School Online boasts an impressive 41% of qualifications at A* grade, placing it in the top 1% of all UK schools and outperforming its physical namesake.
So, what sets online schools apart? While online schools vary widely in their approaches, here are some examples of what has contributed to the success of institutions like Harrow School Online:
- Personalisation of Curriculum: Online schools offer an unprecedented level of personalisation. Students can tailor their timetables, subjects, and learning pathways to suit their individual needs. This flexibility extends to the duration of courses, accommodating students who want shorter or longer timeframes for learning, and even the age at which they access the curriculum.
- Interactive and Self-Paced Learning: Online schools employ interactive self-access materials to teach new content, moving away from traditional teacher-led explanations. This approach enables self-paced learning with adaptive pathways, ensuring stronger students are adequately challenged while weaker students are supported. The emphasis on self-access materials fosters independent learning and provides greater flexibility in scheduling, with fewer fixed lessons.
- Gamification of Learning: Drawing inspiration from the video game industry, online education incorporates gamified elements to make learning engaging and enjoyable. Gamification motivates students, making progress and success more rewarding. This approach of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ gives a nod to the distractions that compete for students’ attention, and helps keep them focused on learning.
- Data-Driven Targeted Teaching: The data-rich nature of online platforms helps educators identify areas where students may need additional support and provide targeted instruction to plug any gaps in understanding. Teachers can intervene at an early stage when they see patterns of concern, such as students working too quickly through self-study materials and performing below their ability level. This targeted instruction helps bridge gaps in understanding.
- Live Interactive Lessons: Online schools facilitate live lessons with a high degree of interactivity and oversight. Features like polls, chat and Q&A provide instant individual feedback on comprehension. Shared whiteboards enable teachers to intervene when students make mistakes, enhancing the learning experience. Real-time support ensures that all students remain engaged and on track.
- Efficient Use of Teaching Staff: Online schools can make more efficient use of teaching staff. Staff time is freed up by pushing students towards independent learning, and this newfound flexibility allows schools to allocate teaching resources differently. For example, teachers may provide one-on-one support to students who need it, or extension classes to those seeking a greater challenge.
The most exciting aspect of these traits is that they are not exclusive to online schooling; they could be integrated into traditional school settings as well. The success of online schools is prompting those in brick-and-mortar establishments to take a hard look at how teachers and learning resources are deployed and consider how to increase the scope for individualisation of learning.
In the meantime, online schools continue to evolve and innovate. While there may not be another pandemic on the horizon, online schools have proven highly suitable for young learners grappling with mental health issues, providing a safe and anxiety-free learning environment. They also cater effectively to pupils with special educational needs (SEND), who find fewer distractions when studying from their home environment, and a growing number of pupils who need flexibility in the location of their schooling, due to relocations or families split across different cities or countries.
The rise in online schooling is not just a revolution—it’s a transformation in education that empowers students, redefines learning, and paves the way for a future where education is more tailored to individual needs. It’s a revolution that’s here to stay, reshaping education for generations to come and ensuring that quality learning is accessible to all.