School by Internet

by Steve Richards
Posted on 1st July 2009

When NorthStarUK opened its virtual doors in September 1999 we had little idea of what the Lord had in store for us. With only 12 students we actually had more tutors than pupils but we were confident that the Lord had called us to establish what was at the time the only fully online secondary 'school' in the UK. Having spent time talking with missionary families and staff at various sending agencies we knew that there was a need to help the growing numbers of families who were home educating their children into the secondary school year. We knew of the growing body of research that indicated that the Internet could be used as a powerful learning tool and so we arrived at the decision to establish neither a school nor a correspondence college but what we came to call an 'online Christian learning community'.

We had a vision of establishing a new learning model - a structure where students could learn wherever they were, whenever they were able to and where parents could confidently be involved in their children's education without feeling inadequate because they were not experts in history or maths. Fundamental to what we were trying to do was a commitment to asynchronous learning - tutors providing learning materials for students to undertake at times there were appropriate for them and their families - rather than the traditional real-time model used by schools and some online learning providers.

At the time, we largely saw the vision as providing support to home educating families around the world. Very quickly, however we came to see that this learning model would be ideal as a mechanism to not only help conventional small schools expand their curriculum (and even move into the secondary years) but also to enable innovative educators to devise new sorts of learning places such as parent cooperatives and flexi-schools.

The Internet has revolutionised learning - except in most schools!

The Internet has revolutionised learning - except in most schools! The generation that lives on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, that chats with friends on msn and speaks with them on Skype, goes to school and is taught in much the same way as their grandparents were. Although the UK government may talk about 'personalised' learning, the reality is that this is a pipedream; a few years ago whilst working as a part-time special needs teacher and be-moaning the inappropriate work that was being set by some teachers for children with learning difficulties, I was told by a deputy head teacher in no uncertain terms that differentiation is impossible in the normal classroom - teachers simply do not have the time. And this was in a preposterous school serving a largely middle class catchment area! Schools don't always have a very good track record when it comes to embracing radical change.

The Internet changes everything to do with learning, however. It enables students and teachers to link into a global network of information that was almost unimaginable twenty years ago. A recent lesson that I 'taught' on the fall of communism in East Europe included an introduction from Britannica, a YouTube video, a wikipedia article on Mikhail Gorbachev as well as the more ordinary lesson files in Acrobat format. My year 11 students were given revision podcasts that they could download and listen to on their mp3 players. None of these are extraordinary in and of themselves. What maybe extraordinary, however, is that using this technology and committed tutors around the world, we are able to prepare students for IGCSE and International A level exams and thereby support families located in some of the most remote parts of the planet.

Most recently, NorthStarUK has become involved in providing support for schools in developing parts of the world provide their students with Cambridge IGCSE and International A levels. Often, these students come from Britain or other western countries but sometimes we find our resources being used by local children - we have one student in Zambia who is studying A level psychology and sociology through her school. She is the only student in the whole country studying these subjects at this level and she eager to go to university, remain in Zambia and make a difference in her own country. The Internet really does broaden horizons.

The challenge for us as Christian educators is to be bold enough to move outside our comfort zone. The traditional role of the teacher as an imparter of knowledge is largely redundant in the western world in the Internet age. Whilst this technology may not be as ubiquitous in the developing world it is only a matter of time. In the future we, teachers are more likely to be facilitators and enablers - using our wisdom and maturity to draw out those gifts that the creator placed in each one of our students. Whether we are teachers in a classroom or administrators making decisions for a whole school we need to be willing to embrace change. Do we really think that in fifty years time, children will be content to let us teach them using nineteenth century methods?

Steve Richards has been Educational Director of NorthStarUK (now NorthStarWorldwide) from its creation in 1999. He tutors all of NSW's history courses. He and his wife Lyn home educated their three daughters up to GCSE and are enjoying the opportunity to have another 'go' at it with their 15 year old son! Steve has spoken widely about home education and online learning. For more info about NorthStarWorldwide, visit