Page content

Online Learning - Solving the Problem of Division in Schools

21 April 2011

Improving internet interaction between Northern Ireland schools is a key to reducing the risk of sectarianism among children, a leading University of Ulster academic has said.

In a specially written pre-election position paper, Professor Roger Austin (pictured), suggested Northern Ireland follows the example of the Dissolving Boundaries Programme, which has been uniting schools here and in the Republic of Ireland for the past 12 years.

It uses Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to facilitate cross-cultural, educational linkages and is jointly funded by both the British and Irish governments.

Children aged between nine and 17 work in cross-border teams using a Virtual Learning Environment and video conferencing, over a 12-month period.

Professor Austin, from Ulster’s School of Education, explained the programme helped participants develop their knowledge of an agreed subject, as well as “building a better understanding of themselves and others.”

“There is no reason why this approach could not be used to link schools within Northern Ireland at both Key Stage 2 and 3,” he said.

“Every school already has access to the internet and a Virtual Learning Environment which could be used to do this, but at the moment very few use it.

“However, this plan would be a realistic way to implement key parts of the Department of Education’s new Community Relations, Equality and Diversity policy, announced in March 2011.”

In his position paper, Professor Austin also called for the creation of a new system to offer more streamlined, online courses, built on a successful model adopted in the Canadian province of Newfoundland.

He pointed out that many schools here have lost specialist teaching staff in recent years, which means they have been unable to offer the 27 courses which is expected of every school when pupils reach 16.

“The Department of Education’s solution to this has been to cluster schools in Area Learning Communities, with the idea that schools will offer different courses and that pupils will travel between schools to get the right mix of subjects,” explained Professor Austin.

“However, this is proving to be expensive and time consuming, so most of the school clusters have been exploring the idea that some courses could be offered online.

“There are two problems here – the first is that each of the 32 clusters has been working separately and rather than all working on one ‘platform’ for the delivery of the courses, each cluster has been working on their own ‘platform’.

“And the second problem is while there is in fact one ‘platform’ they could use, called Learning Northern Ireland (LNI) which has been used very effectively with the PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) students at the University of Ulster, unfortunately not enough teachers like it to use it for course delivery in their Area Learning Communities.

“While the present patchwork of clusters is providing some useful experience for teachers in starting to think about what online learning might look like, it will take a very long time for every child to have equal opportunities and access to the range of courses they could have, unless we take action.”

Professor Austin suggested that in order to create world class, online courses we would need to follow the example in Newfoundland.

“Faced with exactly the same problems that we have, they set up a single ‘platform’ for all their online courses, identified the key subjects that were needed and seconded teachers for six months to build the online resources,” he said.

“Last year, 25 per cent of senior students in Newfoundland took online courses leading to higher education and with results that were just as good as those who were taught face to face.

“There was one important difference however – those who had done the online courses found that they were better prepared for the more independent style of study that was expected of them at university where, as in Northern Ireland, a growing percentage of courses are partly taught online.”

Professor Austin concluded that for any such progress to be made a degree of political consensus and clear leadership was needed.

A full copy of Professor Austin’s paper can be downloaded from: