Using methods such as personalised course design and support networks an online learning community in Ireland is helping to integrate disengaged youth back into the education system. ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN writer Jacob Sullivan spoke to Marianne Checkley about her research into the organisation iScoil.ie and how the ‘innovative, flexible and adaptive’ model can provide education and accreditation opportunities for early school leavers throughout the world.
Modern e-learning technology can provide a safety net for early school leavers.
Working with the Irish e-learning initiative iScoil.ie, Marianne Checkley has been researching how online platforms can ‘engage school dropouts’ to help them become accredited. Each year in Ireland, 1,000 children leave school before completing the Junior Certificate – 43% of those were still unemployed a year later.
“There is very little alternative state provision for 12-16 year-olds,” notes Anne Marie Quinn of the Presentation Sisters, which provides iScoil’s funding. iScoil caters for young people at risk, for whom school doesn’t work. Anxiety, disaffection and illness are typical reasons for referral to iScoil, though the most common are behavioural difficulties and school refusal.
Since emerging in 2009, iScoil has helped over 130 young people and currently serves 45-50 students. Nearly all will either return to school, or go on to youth-reach programmes, community training centres or Solas (Ireland’s Further Education and Training Authority).
Around 60% achieved Level 3 Further Education and Training Awards (FETAC), and 20% the full award for General Learning. Checkley is optimistic that: “Certification is growing each year as we develop strategies for engagement and the design of curriculum and content.”
The iScoil model of learning is different to distance education or resource sharing via the Internet, explains Checkley, because it is a whole platform. The student interacts with an online portal, performing tasks at a Level 3 standard within the National Framework for Qualifications, in a variety of subject areas, while gaining feedback. The way instruction and support is delivered ‘establishes a true sense of learning community.’
Following a blended learning model, the students often receive education at face-to-face workshops in addition to online. “Learner variance and difference is central to the personalised learning plans devised for each student,” Checkley says. “Mentors identify individual students’ interests and needs, and help them work towards a FETAC accreditation.”
The learning plan is refreshed once a day, reports are given once a week. Depending on student need, a course can last 1-3 years. A significant advantage of this learning model is that students can choose to participate when they want, without a timetable, at their own pace – during the opening hours of the server between 9 AM and 8 PM.
“You’re not stuck in all-day from early morning until night,” enthuses one student. “My brain works better when I’m fully awake and when I was in regular schooling I would be really tired and couldn’t concentrate as much because of it,” reports another.
Teachers can benefit from the flexible learning model, too. “If you’ve got a student that’s not engaging you can change your approach,” explains one teacher. “You could give them the same content in a different way […] it gives you that chance of trying lots of different things.”
However, Checkley’s research also highlights drawbacks. “Sometimes the hard thing is you don’t even get any feedback from students,” one teacher complained to her.
Checkley states that an improvement could be more student-teacher interaction – or ‘synchronous learning’, as it would allow for more discussion and inquiry based learning. A pilot of synchronous online instruction for Mathematics has already taken place with promising outcomes. Though, Checkley adds: “While some teachers miss meeting the students, some prefer the sense of equality fostered by online learning environments.”
Another potential platforms like iScoil highlight is the use of ‘authoring tools.’ In general, an authoring tool is a programme that allows a non-programmer to create software, using set graphics, interfaces, interactive modes and other tools that educational software needs. Teachers can design a course in line with national curriculum standards that is tailored to specific kinds of learners. The possible applications of this are clearly global.
But, what Checkley is particularly interested in is the capacity for authoring tools to let the educator edit a course in response to ‘strengths, weaknesses and gaps’, to make it more effective. “It allows teachers to identify good practice and possible areas for improvement,” Checkley says.
One of her research methods involved placing a data-analysis of the learning transaction between student, teacher and content (from iScoil) into the framework of another authoring tool (Open GLM). The resulting graphic provided a clear visual display of students’ progression towards a learning outcome. “This kind of insight would be difficult to gain in a traditional classroom environment,” Checkley states.
Overall, her research affirms the online iScoil model as ‘innovative, flexible and adaptive’ and one that can only be of increasing significance to contemporary learning practices across the world, especially to the educationally marginalised. Checkley hopes iScoil can attract more funding, so as to reach more young people and increase access opportunities to education across Ireland.
Find out more when Marianne Checkley presents her findings at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2014