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Online learning bridges the gap from class to the digital world

When Anna* dropped out of school at 14 suffering from anxiety due to bullying, she felt she would be left behind with no chance of getting a job. However, she was referred to iScoil, a new online learning initiative where she was able to continue her education, grow in confidence and gain qualifications that enabled her to find work.

Anna is one of a growing number of second-level students who are unable to continue in school. The reasons for this vary from behavioural issues, bullying, inability of the system to engage all students, to medical conditions and family situation.

iScoil is Ireland's first virtual school. All the teaching and learning happens online. Students are assigned a mentor who identifies the student's interests, facilitates their learning and helps them to work towards FETAC accreditation.

iScoil is born of the belief that all young people want to learn but not all are 'school shaped'. With iScoil, there is an emerging model of learning, facilitated by technology, that is addressing the barriers to learning, be they personal, social, medical or systemic.

In iScoil, the learning is not bound by a class timetable but happens throughout the day and at the student's pace. The iScoil secure server is open from 9am to 8pm and it will eventually open 24/7 to facilitate learning at any time and in any place.

A central element of iScoil's success is the ability of the online teachers to relate to and engage with the students.

iScoil is a small project. However, lessons are emerging from it that could be helpful for the wider education system on how online learning can complement and enhance traditional schooling. The mix of both is often called blended learning.

The defining characteristics of this model of learning are: a personalised approach -- the learning is tailored to the individual; a modular or project-based curriculum; more emphasis on collaboration with peers; teachers as facilitators; and continuous assessment by portfolio.

In this school year in the US, 1.5 million primary and second-level students were engaged in online and blended learning. Almost every US state provides online learning, with 38 states having full-time virtual schools. The growth rate in online learning in the US is phenomenal at 30% per year.

We need smart schools for the smart economy, but Ireland is at risk of lagging behind. There are almost no virtual schools in Ireland.

The roll-out of high-speed broadband to all secondary schools offers an unparalleled opportunity for the Department of Education to reinvent traditional schooling for 21st Century students.

For today's students, the internet has always existed, information has been universally available to them and community is a digital social network. They are 'digital natives', used to an interactive world.

They place a premium on being engaged. In the traditional classroom they are usually required to 'power down' and switch off from their digital media.

There ought not be such a gap between the digital world and the learning environment in school. Online learning can bridge this gap.

iScoil is in the early stages of development and will cater for 48 students this year. With additional funding it could cater for many more students like Anna.

It has not been set up by the hi-tech sector nor by the Department of Education but by the Presentation Sisters, who are working for inclusion in education through investment in innovation.

*Not her real name

Irish Independent