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The future of online learning


 The new frontier of education

Heather Rhodes, founding Principal of Highgrove Online School looks at the increasingly persuasive case for a fully online education.

One of the most rapidly expanding areas of education is online schooling, with ever larger numbers of students opting to take part or all of their studies online. Supercharged by the pandemic, the growth of online learning shows no sign of slowing down. So, what’s behind this trend, and how might it impact education as a whole?

Why is online education expanding?

Online education is not just a response to a global crisis. For educational institutions, it’s often a strategic move to redefine their reach and impact, and for families choosing to study online, it’s a deliberate decision to seek an education that better suits the needs of their children.

This is partly a response to problems the traditional system can’t always address. Online schools allow students to follow the curriculum of their choosing wherever they might live or be relocating to, and provide flexibility in the timing of lessons which suits students who have competing commitments (think athletes and performers). Studying from home offers a comfortable environment which avoids the distractions and social difficulties of school, and therefore lends itself well to pupils who have learning differences, or who have been bullied, or who suffer from social anxiety. There’s also a growing pool of students who are turning to online schooling because they want more agency in their education, and feel held back by the established educational system.

A paradigm shift in pedagogy

The traditional model of education, where a teacher imparts knowledge to a classroom of students, has seen little change since its inception. Online education steps in to break this mould, offering a dynamic range of alternatives.

Online schools enable the personalisation of learning, allowing students to tailor their schedules, subjects, and learning pathways to suit their individual needs.  They lend themselves particularly well to flipped learning models, where students work through self-study materials independently before putting to test what they’ve learnt in a live lesson with a teacher. Learning independently can be challenging, but promotes knowledge retention and allows pupils to work at a pace that suits them. The data collected from interactive self-study work allows live lessons to be carefully targeted, meaning every moment is productively spent. As a student from my current online school describes it, “studying becomes 100% efficient”.

Live classes in the online realm provide a level of interactivity and oversight that teachers find challwenging in physical classrooms. Picture a class of students working through maths problems on an infinite shared whiteboard space, with the teacher able to review each student’s working as they progress and intervene as mistakes happen, rather than waiting for a student to present an answer. When all students are being called on to participate simultaneously, there’s no space to hide quietly in the back of the room.

Academic excellence against all odds

Contrary to the prevailing belief that online schooling is a last resort, evidence suggests it may well be the better option academically. My current school, Harrow School Online, is a case in point, with pupils achieving 78% of all A levels at A* or A against a national average of 27% and outperforming its parent school, a prestigious 450-year-old boarding school for boys. Most pupils study with us full time but there are a growing number who take a ‘mix and match’ approach to education, taking an individual A level or EPQ course with us and the rest of their provision elsewhere.  Online schooling can provide an individualised education which supports each pupil to work to the top of their ability, with a level of flexibility that is hard to match.

Caution: buyer beware

However, as many traditional schools found during the pandemic, it can be difficult to get online delivery right.  It’s equally challenging for parents to navigate the choices available to them. There’s a temptation for online schools to rely on gimmicks and buzzwords over educational efficacy, or to shave costs by using lecture-based teaching, recorded video lessons or compilations of YouTube videos as an integral part of their provision. Parents often mistake high live lesson teaching time for high quality education, or don’t think to ask to see the self-study materials, or ask about the community aspect of the school.

Online schooling is in many ways the ‘Wild West’ of education, breaking new frontiers, but lacking recognition or regulation from governments. The unregulated nature of online education allows for a wide range of quality of provision, from schools striving for academic excellence, to others where provision is chaotic and profits are prioritised over quality. On top of this, the sheer number of mergers, closures and acquisitions keep even the keenest observers on their toes.

Is it worth It?

Harrow School Online is one of the latest online schools to be earmarked for closure, and in a story worthy of the online schooling world, almost the entire team running the school – including myself – are moving together to found a new establishment, Highgrove Online School. It’s both an example of the strength of community it is possible to build online, and testament to the job satisfaction of providing a world-class education for students who haven’t been able to perform to the top of their ability in a traditional setting.

Online provision can be spectacularly effective and provide a haven for pupils who have, in one way or another, been failed by the traditional education system. The sector is full of change, challenge, and innovation, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be working right now.


Heather Rhodes is the Principal of Harrow School Online and the founding Principal of Highgrove Online School, www.highgroveeducation.com.




Thank you to Heather for the accompanying images.

Furher reading:

Fulltime online

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