Traditional teachers are winning the race…who’d have thought it?!

An article popped up on the BBC News Website a few days ago, commenting on the success (or lack thereof) of charter schools and online teaching in the USA. These charter schools – publicly funded independent schools – have continued to grow and expand and were seen as the ‘next big thing’ in re-energising standards in state education; so much so that the next step was to introduce a ‘virtual classroom’, combining all the good things about an independent school with the flexibility of being able to learn online.

However, a major report has now pretty much debunked this whole advancement with findings that suggest that these schools have ‘significantly weaker academic performances’ in maths and reading when compared to conventional schools; the teacher in the classroom is still more successful than learning from a screen. In essence: online learning has failed to match the teacher at the front of the class. Well then, it looks as if it may be time for bee-it to hang up its edtech boots. Or not. Persevere while we explain:

Online schools are still relatively small in pupil numbers but the idea of virtual schooling has been growing quickly and has been seen as a significant future alternative to mainstream schools. This recent report though is now saying that online schools may actually be a bad idea – the research suggests that those taking online classes are more likely to fall behind in that subject by an entire year. An entire year!

These classes however, are an ‘alternative’ to attending a traditional school, rather than having additional lessons, and aim to replace the traditional schooling structure by teaching everything online. They are known as ‘virtual’ or ‘cyber’ schools which to any child of school-age would sound quite exciting; even I would be intrigued.

As if we wouldn’t have already guessed though, the study found that despite the online classes receiving the same amount of screen time as the normal classroom environments received teacher time, there was much less teacher contact time in virtual schools and low achievement in these schools has raised big doubts about the approach.

The online schools relied upon students driving their own learning, without someone there to physically spur them on, encourage them, discipline them, correct them or praise them for their efforts. And in an online teaching environment where there are high student-teacher ratios, in all honesty, how many 11-15 year-olds actually want to drive their own learning?

The biggest problem, unsurprisingly, was the difficulty in keeping online pupils focused on their work. Now, I am of a generation that grew-up and went to school without any of the new, brilliant and wonderful technology that is available now; and undeniably, and to my frustration, even I find it increasingly difficult when working from home or when surrounded with multiple pieces of technology, to stay focused on one single task, so I do not know how tech savvy, social media-obsessed children who have grown up as users of this type of technology can stay focused on one lesson at a time, especially if the lessons are curriculum based and have limited teacher interaction; we’re not talking Minecraft or YouTube here are we?!

Children shouldn’t be taught entirely through ‘virtual means’ unless it is the only route to education; it takes the humanity out of learning; it prohibits group and face-to face discussion and interaction; it prohibits heated debates and question asking and fact-checking. And it inhibits those who may find a certain subject a struggle, those who thrive on one-on-one tuition or social interaction. Yes, online learning can be great for some; but every child is wired differently.

In essence though, what did these researchers expect from the study? Our children are not robots. Despite proof that they’re more tech-aware and tech-competent than any previous generation, teaching absolutely and fundamentally requires an element of face-to-face interaction. A student should be able to approach a teacher in a real-life setting and be coached and guided using empathy and understanding and if necessary, discipline; this is not to say that edtech shouldn’t be used; far from it; but it should be used to support teaching, not replace it. Pupils should also be able to go to a teacher with issues other than just school work. It’s common sense more than anything.

The BBC article also spoke about ‘blended learning’, which IS successful. This type of approach sees online teaching being mixed with some traditional classroom learning in a setting where a teacher is always present. In an environment like this it can be easy to see how a variety of learning and teaching methods could keep young minds active and provide alternative stimuli which in an ever progressing digital world where youngsters may find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, is needed in abundance to prevent boredom and distraction.

It may sound as if we are rejecting edtech and digital advancement by recognising the fact that online schools don’t work for all pupils, especially those in mainstream education from urban areas. However, we at bee-it DO support the use of edtech; we advocate it and we encourage it; we wouldn’t be in business and we wouldn’t be here providing you with information if we didn’t; we want more children to advance than ever before and we think it’s important that they do so. However, just because we promote the use of certain educational software and we praise the use of certain resources, it MUST be noted that we are absolutely behind every teacher out there who puts in more than 100% effort every single day to ensure each of their pupils are receiving the best education they can.

Assisting face-to-face learning with educational software is one thing but replacing that human interaction between teacher and pupil with a computer screen and no emotion, no fun and no relationship, is definitely not our bag!

A couple of weeks ago we published an article which spoke about Sir Andrew Carter’s idea and proposal for Skype-led lessons. We looked at the pros and cons and concluded that if done properly, the idea could be effective but would not replace the efficiency of traditional classroom learning. It is the same with online schooling; of course it would work better in certain environments more than others. Take for example, pupils who live in remote or rural areas; those who are at home with health problems; or those with families moving around the country – in these circumstances the online school could be beneficial.

Phone with QAnother way to look at this would be to take into consideration the country it is applied in, the classroom sizes and the availability of qualified teachers, especially in countries such as Kenya, where the ‘online’ idea or a similar alternative might actually increase learning and help those from poorer backgrounds to enter some kind of mainstream education. And this in fact, is happening now. A BBC article discussed and looked at the successes of Eneza Education, a organisation set up in Nairobi in 2011 in order to help make, ’50 million students in Africa smarter’. It is a virtual tutor and teachers’ assistant; teaching done through text messaging – a way to access courses through a low-cost cell phone.

Much of the education in Kenya is costly and under-resourced, and limited funding leaves teachers over-stretched and classrooms overcrowded. While not completely ‘online’, the cell-phone and text message teaching method is a way of helping students to learn through technology, without the huge cost usually associated with such resources. The full article can be read by clicking the link above.

Despite the report findings, we are only to assume that online schools will continue to grow; there will be reviews and there will be changes to their function, accessibility, and the overall approach they take. While we at bee-it could probably have predicted that there would be lower achievements in certain subjects in these type of schools, it doesn’t mean that edtech and teaching doesn’t mix; it just means it has to be used in the right way, with the right support; and that support should always come from the teacher.


  1. Reading some of the reports that the article was based on makes it clear that a lot of what was being offered was asynchronous, so the pupils and students were expected to complete work without much teacher input, putting pressure onto the parents to make it work. This required dedication and focus that many of the learners would not have developed yet. The online charter schools certainly need close checking to make them improve.

    In the online schools I’ve been part of in the UK the focus is generally on the real-time teaching with qualified teacher, with up to three hours per week per subject in classes of up to 15. With time to ask questions and interact, there is certainly a lot of humanity in our lessons, I see it all the time as our teachers build relationships with our students. We hear about what they do at the weekends and I remember a time that a student was keeping the class up to speed on the kittens his cat has having.

    These online schools don’t see themselves as a solution that suits everyone, but for those who are out of school long term through illness or exclusion, they can offer an education where it would otherwise be difficult to achieve one. For some young people they offer stability to lives that are anything but stable.

    While the BBC article highlights some clear concerns about they way online schooling has been implemented in the US, there are organisations working differently with the learners at the heart of everything they do.

  2. Hi Neil,

    Good to hear from you! Yes, I think we need to make a distinction here:

    “…real-time teaching with qualified teacher…our teachers build relationships with our students”

    There is clearly a place for online schools and we know a few companies in this field who do damn fine work and see amazing results. The key difference here is that these companies place pedagogy at their heart and are not replacing teachers with technology, they are simply using technology to help bring education to their students.

    The report can be a little misleading, but it really refers to online schools with limited teacher input.