Set-up from its inception as a fully online school, Harrow School Online is the newest educational development by the prestigious Harrow School. Founded in 1572 and famed globally for offering the highest quality of education, the thoughtful development of their upcoming online program can offer significant insight for other institutions that have had to suddenly transition to virtual education over the past couple of months. Quintessentially Education speaks to Principal Heather Rhodes about the challenges she's overcome, and what the future might hold for education as a whole.

QE: What led to the decision to create a fully online school?

HR: Interestingly, Harrow School Online pre-dates the pandemic, and is entirely separate from the emergency online education provision that's going on around the world right now—Harrow School Online has actually been preparing for the September launch for approximately two years. 

Harrow School Online aims to broaden access to a higher quality British education, reaching out to students across the world and creating a community of learners that spans continents. This way of teaching also serves those students who are perhaps better suited to learning online than in a physical classroom. 

What are some of the benefits and challenges of an online school?

When done well, online education should be just as effective as classroom-based teaching; however, the key is not to try to translate what works in a traditional brick and mortar school directly into an online environment. Each environment has its advantages, and virtual schooling should be organised to make the most of its innate strengths: flexibility and the opportunity for individualised learning. 

Can you go into greater depth about some of the challenges faced when transitioning a curriculum from in-person to online?

One approach is for teachers to send students assignments to complete that are similar to traditional homework but in increased volumes. In this model, the parent is being called on to be the teacher and administrator, printing out worksheets, supervising children while they complete their exercises, and helping explain the content if they get stuck. This puts immense pressure on the parents and gets particularly challenging for parents who are simultaneously attempting to work from home, or who have multiple children in different year groups. 

The opposite extreme is where a school tries to deliver its entire timetable using online video calls. A significant issue with this is that live online lessons are more intensive—and therefore more tiring—than regular classes. Unless teachers have been trained to teach online, their classes tend to be less interactive and more lecture-based, with fewer opportunities for them to get feedback from students about how much they're understanding. Even a well-designed virtual lesson is more demanding, perhaps because both the teacher and students tend to be more focused in a virtual classroom with fewer distractions around them. At the end of the virtual school day, both students and teachers can be left struggling and exhausted.

How can these challenges be overcome?

Best practice in online schooling suggests that there's an alternative to these extremes which avoids exhausting parents, teachers or students. The approach taken by Harrow School Online is based on the effective use of 'flipped classroom teaching methodology,' which involves students working through interactive self-study materials to develop an understanding of subject content. Then, a lesson in a virtual classroom would follow where teachers explore that material, deepening their knowledge and encouraging them to apply and extend their learning. 

This methodology allows students to learn content independently at a time and a pace that suits them, but with regularly taught lessons to check and support that learning. These guided lessons can be targeted to the areas students most need to work on. 

This approach to learning needs to be reinforced by individualised support to help students become more successful independent learners. This can be offered through regular online tutorials, and by holding virtual drop-in hours where students can make appointments with a teacher to talk through issues or aspects of the course they haven't entirely understood, or where a teacher can invite smaller groups of students for a micro-lesson to review a particular area of difficulty. 

If students are learning from home, won't they miss out on the feeling of community school can often bring?

It's true, academic study isn't the only aspect of a school, and the extracurricular programme and sense of community are more important than ever during these times. Virtual school assemblies, and online societies and clubs—for example, creating a student newspaper to distribute via email—allow students to forge a sense of community and belonging in the same way as they would in a physical school.

What is the future of online education and will the current pandemic have a lasting impact?

Optimising online education is likely to take some trial and error from schools adapting to the challenges of education during these times of social distancing—it's clearly a steep learning curve. Unlike Harrow School Online which was established solely for online learning, these schools have been thrust into this new reality without the necessary tools to maximise learning opportunities—and leaving many parents feeling the strain of homeschooling their children.

Done well, online learning has the potential to revolutionise education. As schools find new ways of harnessing technology to educate, we expect there to be a lasting impact on how we teach and learn, long after schools which are currently online have returned to their physical classrooms. Going forward, we can expect to see the 'flipped classroom' methodology with targeted teaching and individualised teaching to become a lot more common.  

For those students who have thrived in this period of forced online learning, because they are removed from physical distractions and have a chance to review material at a time and a pace that suits them, hopefully, both parents and teachers can learn from this and continue looking for ways in which they can offer online education longterm.

For questions about Harrow School Online, or for assistance in bettering your child's home learning experience, please contact Quintessentially Education.