Studying for GCSEs virtually: a sign of the times?

As digital learning becomes more and more relevant, are virtually-learned GCSEs another option for the future, asks Hugh Viney, CEO at Minerva’s Virtual Academy

As educators, our exposure to the power of online learning has been magnified over the past year or so and we have learned much about the potential surrounding virtual schooling. As with all technologies, digital learning platforms continue to evolve at pace and in line with our growing requirements.

As such, many schools are beginning to understand the real potential that lies behind remote learning. For most, it is not yet a direct replacement for traditional classroom-based learning but that could well change in the future.

Learning online has opened more doors for more children, particularly in terms of learning at an individual pace as opposed to a one-size-fits-all classroom environment. It has undoubtedly created a new dimension in supporting pupils that have specific learning needs too, with a more personalised, bespoke approach to delivering the curriculum.

Some experts are also reviewing how digital learning platforms might be utilised in the future by bricks and mortar schools to enhance the way that learning is delivered to children in a classroom setting.

Studying virtually for the entire GCSE syllabus is an interesting thought too. Following this year’s TAGs (teacher-assessed grades), we await the longer-term impact on students surrounding inflated grading and the general pros and cons that go hand in hand with the removal of traditional examinations.

Much of the disruption students have faced is of course linked to school closures and periods of broken learning. Yet the last year or so has forced us to rethink and question the validity of an exam-based curriculum and how we deliver the syllabus currently.

Learning is virtual (students are not)

Interestingly, the entire GCSE and A-level syllabus is available online, so it begs the question, is there a future for the potential of studying for exams online? Increasing numbers of students are opting to home school and these numbers have been rising more recently.

In July, the BBC reported that the number of children registering for home education in the UK had risen by 75% in the first eight months of the 2020/21 school year. It is clear that parents are concerned about the impact that the pandemic has had, and could still have, on the continuity of their children’s education. This is particularly relevant for those children who went into Year 10 and 11 in September, who will also feel the knock-on effect of learning gaps.

Learning the complete GCSE syllabus online has been made possible through intelligent, digital learning platforms that actually teach students using a combination of video lessons, audio, text and also discussion-focused modules as well as live, subject lessons that are delivered by a physical teacher.

Successful virtual learning involves physical intervention; the two are not mutually exclusive

What is important, as with all digital learning, is that the technology used is dynamic rather than static. Platforms need to be robust enough to regularly challenge and question students, not only on what they have learned, but also on their understanding, if they are to deliver favourable learning outcomes. Regular monitoring of student progress and evaluation of the work covered is vital in this instance.

Successful virtual learning involves physical intervention; the two are not mutually exclusive. Intervention must be present to gauge and review progress. Online learning can be very efficient from a teaching perspective, allowing for more tailored learning but this only works if that learning is tracked, validated and supervised in the real world.

In a physical class-based setting, a teacher would have full visibility of a pupils’ understanding and their attainment at GCSE level and assignments would be continually reviewed, with individual feedback given. Likewise, a teacher would be able to identify problem areas and misunderstandings. The same must apply to online learning. If digital learning is managed well, and with the understanding that learning is virtual (students are not), learners will develop and progress as they journey through the syllabus.

One size doesn’t fit all

With the best will in the world, online learning won’t be compatible with every pupil (just as physical school doesn’t always work for the minority of cases), the same applies to completing the GCSE syllabus virtually. Yet there are instances where online learning comes into its own for certain groups.

Children who regularly exceed in their studies and are often way ahead of their peers in class might be ‘slowed down’ in practice as teachers try to keep the learning pace on track for the whole class. These children could benefit from a more individualised learning experience whereby they can progress at their own speed and in some cases may take exams earlier than anticipated. The same applies to SEND students, who might benefit from personalised learning delivered in a more relevant and focused way.

Some students follow other passions while at school, such as competing professionally as athletes and may need greater flexibility around training schedules and competitions as opposed to a rigid school timetable. Again, virtual learning of the syllabus can support this kind of scenario.

There are also many other circumstances where online study can support students studying for GCSEs. This last year we have seen rising numbers of mental illness and anxiety amongst children, particularly in teenagers, which can severely impact learning progression. Learning virtually is one way to help a student achieve their full potential when exams arrive without the addition of peer pressures and other anxieties that might be magnified in a traditional schooling environment.

How do exams work?

For those students that have studied the GCSE syllabus online, they would ordinarily take their exams in person at a local exam centre. As with all independent schools, there is an exam fee, and this is dependent on the subject and the location of the exam centre.

One of the misconceptions from parents around studying virtually for exams is whether or not the GCSEs will be regarded in the same way as they would be had they have studied in a physical school. Essentially, virtual or not, the curriculum is the same, the exams are also the same and the same examination boards are used – so the validity of the GSCE is equal.

It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring in relation to GCSEs and A-levels, but one thing is clear, online learning is a big contender for the future of examinations and this will be a blessing for many students.


Read more: Is there need for innovation in e-learning when not in lockdown?

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