Does virtual learning achieve fairer outcomes for students?

Hugh Viney, CEO at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, considers whether learning is hindered by the traditional classroom approach

The growth of digital education and the rising numbers of online schools across the UK has certainly made learning more accessible and more personalised for students today. Gone are the days when being home schooled meant learning in isolation. Children can now learn virtually with peers and via live lessons. They can socialise both virtually and in-person during meetups. They can attend school assemblies, events and after school clubs.

Most importantly, they access the entire GCSE and A-level syllabus, all from the comfort of their home and from anywhere in the world. They can also do all of this without the threat of new virus variants disrupting their education.

Learning online has indeed provided greater scope for a more bespoke education. As most independent schools would agree, education has never been about a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Young people don’t learn in the same way and each student will have individual needs. This is especially the case for children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) requirements.

We have definitely seen a dramatic rise in parents seeking guidance and support around re-introducing their children into education. Newer concepts such as one-to-one mentoring in online schools, as well as wellbeing initiatives, are vital in supporting these children.

Exposure to digital learning also means students can learn at their own pace, obtain ‘in the moment’ feedback and take more responsibility for their overall education. The question is, does online learning lead to fairer outcomes for all pupils?

A student from Minerva’s Virtual Academy in film club


Learning ‘in the moment’

Children with severe SEND issues including autism, affects a child’s capacity for learning in multiple ways from self-esteem to simply struggling to fit in, adapt and progress in their schools. The pandemic has, of course, not helped matters. But the reality is, many families have been unable to obtain appropriate support and care for their child. In some cases, they have experienced delays in obtaining a medical diagnosis too, which means they have been left to battle in the interim with little or no learning provision.

Independent schools strive to develop well-rounded, resilient, and self-reliant young people, who are known individually and who are treated as such. They also seek to offer tailored, personalised education, which enables every child to reach their potential.

For this reason, digital learning goes hand in hand with the traditional pillars of schooling and can be used successfully alongside face-to-face teaching. Many schools have been adopting blended learning approaches in the classroom as a result of the pandemic, so delivering face-to-face teaching and online education simultaneously has become somewhat the norm.

But learning opportunities have to be fair for all. Whether a child is exceptionally bright, or needs additional support with their learning, every child deserves the same chance to be their best self. This usually means delivering a seamless education where every student can access their learning with the right support and feedback.

The personalised learning experience that all independent schools aspire to deliver will be greatly improved by the addition of virtual learning

Time to learn

When blended learning is implemented well, schools and students get the best of both worlds. They gain from the added benefits afforded by virtual learning, such as efficiency of progress, personal attainment tracking and recorded lessons from the classroom (that students can look back over at a later date or time to ensure they have absorbed and retained the content of the lesson – and more importantly, that they understand it).

They can also obtain one-to-one feedback from teachers and receive greater flexibility around their learning. To deliver fair learning outcomes, this must be mixed with the social aspect of face-to-face teacher time and, of course, physical time with peers. Both can happen on and offline.

It’s a known fact that some students simply need more time to learn. Being able to catch up in your own time, or to go back over a lesson earlier that day and to ask further questions if needed, without holding up the real-time delivery of the lesson itself, can be extremely valuable and, again, creates a more level playing field.

Digital and blended learning approaches are relevant to all schools today and will continue to be in the future. The personalised learning experience that all independent schools aspire to deliver will be greatly improved by the addition of virtual learning. Every student must be allowed to thrive and flourish in a way that is individually meaningful.

The pandemic continues to reveal the gaps in our current educational system that need closing. Embracing digital education and, in turn, more personalised learning outcomes, will help to equip children with the vital skills they need to succeed in the modern world.

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