Monday, June 11, 2012

SCHOLAR: most successful e-learning project you’ve never heard of

Which country has had e-learning, in a range of subjects, aligned with the curriculum, with full CPD support for teachers, supported by good research, in almost all of its schools for well over a decade? Answer – Scotland.
I was involved with this initiative some time ago and was delighted to keynote at their annual conference this week, as it’s probably the most important example of sustained, successful e-learning in schools, in the world.
Heriot Watt University set up SCHOLAR in 1999 and it is now in almost all secondary schools, public and private. Targeted at 16-18 year olds it is designed to stimulate independent study and prepare students for a career, college or university. What I admire is the fact that students lie at the heart of the project. At the conference we had four students present, and then a teenage mum on video, to explain, confidently, how SCHOLAR had allowed her to continue with her education. This is what SCHOLAR IS really all about – creating confident students.
For me, this is what the flipped model should be. It gets rid of the whole concept of 'homework', that hideous word, too often used by teachers (where's your homeWORK, have you finished your WORK...). Guy Claxton showed how destructive this can be with students. This is about encouraging self-study, with useful content that is packed with useful, formative feedback.
Lessons learnt
SCHOLAR is also great case study in how to create a successful, sustainable e-learning initiative. If you want a blueprint on how to do it – it’s here.
Lesson 1: Political commitment. SCHOLAR was supported by central government and the team have always made sure that politicians and civil servants understood its importance. Strong and dedicated leaders, like Professor Cliff Beevers and Professor Phillip John, have relentlessly supported the project and made sure that rigorous research took place to underpin its adoption.
Lesson 2: Create quality e-courseware. Education, with its auteur belief that ‘every teacher must be allowed to create their own course’ is often hostile to external content. This is a catastrophic mistake. Teaching is far too difficult a job for the dull parts, like marking and work outside of the classroom, not to be automated. This is not ‘homework’ it’s independent study. Good content and formative assessment is a godsend, not a threat, to teachers.
Lesson 3: Strong on assessment. Make sure that the formative assessment is fulsome, based on good research and relevant. It must be diagnostic, allow for non-recorded, self-testing as well as tracked tests, all finely tuned to the actual curriculum, and of genuine help in moving students forward. Note that discussion boards are part of this process, where students help other students.
Lesson 4: Buy-in from teachers. From its inception, teachers were consulted, used as champions and CPD is available from an experienced team who will go anytime, anywhere to get their message across. The courseware needs to be demonstrated and the advantages of animations, strong assessment and curriculum coverage needs to be sold. Teacher adoption is a necessary condition for success.
Lesson 5: Subject champions. After 32 years of teaching, a brilliant Physics teacher, full of dry wit and brilliant examples, showed us how he wished SCHOLAR had been available when he was in the classroom. These subject ‘champions’ travel across Scotland and advise educational authorities, schools and teachers. They are the bridge to the teaching profession. Good practice guides in each subject are also available.
Lesson 6: Keep focus on students. There’s e-learning induction for students. The courseware and assessment is constantly updated with data from students fed back into the design process. It is important that the system is easy to use and really does meet the needs of students. Teaching, after all, is only a means to an end. Student learning is always the end goal.
Lesson 7: Do research. Rigorous research has helped sustain the project and give it legitimacy, not only among teachers and students but also with funders, politicians and government. The fact that the project originated in a University (no accident that this was a STEM focused University) was a good thing, in that hard questions were asked about effectiveness, and subsequently researched.
Research matters
Research has been a strong feature of the programme from the start. Several studies have shown a positive correlation between SCHOLAR use and attainment. One study showed that students who used SCHOLAR performed on average half a grade better in their final end-of-year examinations. The research has also confirmed the fact that SCHOLAR encourages extra learning at all times of the day (and night). Every hour on the 24 hour clock has been used. Additional positive findings around students acceptance, the willingness of students to recommend SCHOLAR to others and even research in 3 regions in England with A-level students (I was involved in this LSC study), is also available.
We have a lot to learn from SCHOLAR. First, it works. We have to move beyond this idea that there’s no proof that e-learning works. We also have to commit to the creation and use of quality content and assessment. In an age of austerity, and huge amounts of angst around quality in education, the only way forward is to use technology to provide, scale, consistency and, above all, the opportunity for students to learn where and when they want. We MUST free learning from the tyranny of time and location. The budgets for initiatives like this are minuscule. Why England and other countries have not taken this content and adapted it for their curriculum is beyond me.

Cliff E. Beevers & Phillip John A Case Study: How Scotland Has Leveraged e-Learning to Improve Student Outcomes (excellent overview).
Phillip John, “The SCHOLAR Programme in Scotland,” in Flexible Delivery: An Evaluation of the Use of the Virtual Learning Environment in Higher Education across Scotland (Gloucester, UK: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2006): 33-44.
Kay Livingston and Rae Condie, Evaluation of Phase Two of the SCHOLAR Programme (Glasgow, UK: University of Strathclyde, 2004). 
George McGuire, Martin Youngson, Athol Korabinski, and Douglas McMillan, Partial Credit in Mathematics Exams: A Comparison between Traditional and CAA Exams, Proceedings of the Sixth International Computer Assisted Assessment Conference, Loughborough University, UK (2002): 223-230.
John Winkley, What Can e-Assessment Do for Learning and Teaching?  Paper delivered by John Winkley on behalf of eAA expert panel, International Computer Assisted Assessment Conference, University of Southampton, UK (2010). Case Study: How Scotland Has Leveraged e-Learning to Improve Student Outcomes 15


LEM said...

Thank you for this post—and the blog. Great stuff.

Bill James-Wallace said...

Great post. thanks. All I could think was: how can I implement this at work. ..