Virtual school: real results

The pandemic has opened up new avenues for accessing an excellent international education. Virtual schools are a realistic option, meeting the needs of a diverse range of learning needs.

In this webinar – part of the Great International Education and Schools’ Fair – Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie talks to Mark O’Donoghue, CEO and Executive Head, of leading virtual school, King’s InterHighKing’s InterHigh is a long-established virtual school, now part of the Inspired network of international schools, which educates 50,000 students in more than 70 schools and 20 countries. Through live, online learning backed by cutting-edge education technology, King’s InterHigh delivers an international British curriculum for GCSEs and A levels to students in Years 3-13 (7–18 year olds) with fantastic results. 
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Why are virtual schools more popular?

Shifts in global mobility trends towards shorter term assignments and an increasing number of locations has made education pathways for international families more complex. The pandemic has accentuated these shifts, as well as disrupted what seemed like concrete plans. Borders closing and reopening due to Covid over the past 20 months has caught many families and students out of location.While both international and public schools stepped up and achieved amazing results during the pandemic moving temporarily to online learning, the return to a kind of normal has made many of us reassess what it is to learn in a physical school. A growing number of parents and students are now seeking to double-down on the benefits of a virtual school.“Lots of students have experienced online learning as a result of the pandemic,” says Mark O’Donoghue. “Some of that will have been dreadful. But well-designed online learning can provide a superior academic experience than a physical school for a variety of reasons and support whole-child development. “Those that experienced some decent degree of online learning worked out it can really work for them. So, we’ve seen a huge increase in demand, both during the pandemic, and it has carried on afterwards as more people have decided it is a good way to operate.”

Who is learning at virtual schools?

The benefits of learning in an international school environment are well-established. Children are introduced early on to other cultures and develop a sense of global awareness, as well as valuable life skills that provide a solid foundation for their future, wherever it takes them. In an online school like King’s InterHigh, students retain this awareness of cultural diversity and also inclusion. King’s InterHigh has an open admissions policy, is relatively affordable and attractive for a wide range of students and their families from all over the world.

Globally mobile families

“Our audience fall into four main groups,” says Mark O’Donoghue. “Absolutely, we have globally mobile families who’ve come to us because they want to provide a consistent education to their child rather than uprooting them year in year out from one physical environment to another.“An online school gives them a consistent approach to their academic education, the support in their personal development through those years and also a virtual friendship group because a good academic online school will have a community that is always a consistent anchor for those children while they are moving from one place to another. That is a big audience for us. 

Following other pursuits

“We also have kids who are following a dream. They may be on a pathway to elite sport or a budding actor, entrepreneur or creative who need to be able to organise their education around some other commitments.”

Diverse learning needs and neurodiversity

“Our third group is probably the largest group: kids for whom a physical school doesn’t quite work,’ continues Mark O’Donoghue. “It might be because they are highly gifted and they want to learn faster. It’s much easier to study out-of-year in a virtual school than a physical school.“It may be that they suffer from distraction easily in the classroom and they can’t focus. It may be that they suffer from anxiety or some mental health issues where an online school is a more supportive and safer environment for them.“We have a lot of children who study with us who have a variety of special education needs. Conditions from ADHD to dyslexia and others. One of the reasons why online schools work per se for kids like this is the lack of distraction. If you’re struggling also to understand something first time around, the fact that everything is recorded and available permanently online means you haven’t had that moment in the classroom where you drifted off.”

Accessible remote-learning for international universities

“The last group is typically international kids from across the world who don’t have access to a good international curriculum locally. They want to get on a good pathway to a good global university and with internationally transferable qualifications. It may be that there is an international school, but it’s full or its unaffordable. Virtual school provides access globally in an affordable way to access top-quality education that can lead to that global university.”     

Pastoral care

With whole-child development and wellbeing high on the education agenda, King’s InterHigh is also leading the way in supporting its students. “We have a structure that has a clear line for the student in it,” explains Mark O’Donoghue.“Each student has a personal tutor. Their form tutor is someone who engages with them on a one-to-one basis. If there are issues raised there, they can be escalated to both year-group leads and ultimately to Key Stage leads or me as Executive Head.“In parallel, we also have a health and wellbeing team. They are there to help students with personal issues related to school, but also sometimes more broadly personal issues. "It’s worth saying we do get an awful lot of children who join us because they have experienced, and it was described this way to me by a parent, in a physical space, just white noise – a constant layer of disconnection and distraction from what they were trying to do because they felt anxious and under pressure. Our team is very skilled in being able to support children who are experiencing those types of issues."

Quality of learning and community

Top international schools have a well-earned reputation for the valuable community they create among staff, students and families and their support for transitions. How can this important aspect be replicated in a virtual school, especially when going to school is as much about academic education as it is peer-learning and whole-child development?“We are pretty proactive in how we try to engage with parents about their children’s education," says Mark O’Donoghue. “Needless to say, there are lots of WhatsApp and Facebook groups, particularly in different localities where parents engage with one another. “We provide a parent portal where they can see everything going on with their child’s education, from attendance to engagement to reporting. The Key Stage heads that we have – of GCSEs, Sixth Form, Middle School and Primary – run newsletters out to parents frequently and host parents’ evenings. There’s very active parent engagement that complements student engagement and communication.” 

Virtual school backed by physical campuses

King’s InterHigh is already a large global community of students. It also connects into a wider global community of 50,000 students from around the Inspired network. Students at King’s InterHigh learn alongside each other in in live lessons, as well as participate in activities with students from from across the Inspired group, for example to debate global issues in a model United Nations with students representing different countries. King’s InterHigh also has a student leadership conference built around the UN’s sustainable development goals. Students of similar age groups debate with one another and share solutions to problems. “We also have chess competitions and other things that lend themselves well to virtual things like quizzes and so on,” explains Mark O’Donoghue. “It’s not just the students who benefit. It’s also the staff because we have networks of specialist physics teachers for example who share best practice in teaching.”This collegiate approach between King’s InterHigh and the wider Inspired Schools network aligns with its day-to-day live virtual teaching and learning model. “At the heart of a good online learning experience is instructor-led learning where you have questions and answers, engage and interact. It’s the relationship between the instructor and the student, and between the student and other students. Peer learning is as powerful as instructor-led learning. Live learning gives you the opportunity to do that.”King’s InterHigh combines these “live-lead” lessons with two “explore” lessons. These have a maximum of 20 students in each session and are highly interactive and discursive. Students who want to go further have a space to ask those extension questions, and those who want to consolidate knowledge, have a space to do that and take control of their learning. The school also runs half-term activities for virtual school students at physical campuses in the Inspired network.

Education technology

Where schools like King’s InterHigh really stands out however is their adoption of innovative education technology. Leading with a strong live experience that is instructor- and peer-led, King’s InterHigh’s approach is supplemented by immersive and engaging virtual experiences. These embed and consolidate concepts that have been taught first.Technology extends learning into new and different areas and supports the practical application of knowledge, which is where real learning occurs.“We support all of our live learning with really cutting-edge education technology,” says Mark O’Donoghue. “This enables us to, for example, simulate science experiments in a virtual laboratory. It’s a bit like an Xbox or PlayStation game if you like. You are controlling yourself in your movements through the laboratory and that’s really powerful for bringing science learning to life. “We also have an artificial intelligence-driven language learning platform that actually gets that live speaking going backwards and forwards. We have a host of other platforms and technologies that provide really engaging, technology powered education experiences. But at the heart of it, is still that engagement with a person, an individual teacher.” “Our belief is that technology is an enabler to education. It’s not a replacement for it. That’s really fundamental. Social engagement, virtual or otherwise, is a key part of learning.”

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