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Reaching the unreachable

EDLounge founder, Sam Warnes explains how virtual classrooms can enable schools to reach all their students

Posted by Hannah Vickers | March 01, 2017 | Technology

By Sam Warnes, a former teacher and founder of EDLounge

Paul was the class clown, James was the attention seeker, and John was always the one getting into classroom scuffles. Even throughout my own schooldays, every class had at least one ‘disruptive’ student. I’ve spent over five years as a teacher, and in truth, not much has changed, although nowadays these students are more commonly referred to as ‘disengaged’. And I believe that is what the vast majority are, simply disengaged. 

Disengagement can manifest itself in many different ways: bad behaviour, defiance, creating chaos, refusal to complete tasks or take part in classroom activities, attention seeking, physical or verbal abuse, or complete indifference. Anything to avoid the actual process of learning. 

Undoubtedly, engagement is the key to success for all students. So, as educators (and event as parents), how do we keep all our students engaged, and re-engage those who may be a little more ‘reluctant’?

It’s very easy for students to go off the radar when it comes to education; how can a school stay on top of a student’s progress if, for example, that student has been suspended for a prolonged period? How can they effectively identify gaps in a student’s knowledge if mental health issues means that same student rarely completes a full week at school? Academic success and achievement shouldn’t be reserved only for those students sitting within the classroom walls, and it is each school’s responsibility to ensure this isn’t the case. 

Reaching all students 

Andy Percival, deputy headteacher at Rodillian Academy in Wakefield, has seen virtual classrooms help all their students, and not just those who have been excluded. The academy used the virtual classroom system as a maths intervention prior to exams to help students prepare and practice exam style exam questions. 

Andy explained, “We had a number of examiners write some maths questions which would self-mark on the system; our students used it in the IT suite before going into their exams as prep.

It’s quickly becoming a whole school learning platform rather than an isolated resource - Andy Percival, deputy headteacher at Rodillian Academy in Wakefield

“It’s quickly becoming a whole school learning platform rather than an isolated resource. Students and staff can access the network from home, and student timetables link to SIMS so teachers can set homework for specific individuals or classes. It’s been a real success; we had over 500 students use it for the maths intervention alone. We’re now looking to use it for set texts within English, to help our students with core knowledge which they will need to recall in their exams.”

In addition to raising attainment, virtual classrooms can also help to encourage and support independent study. Rodillian Academy also uses its virtual classroom to give structure and guidance to its Sixth Form students. 

When students have been excluded, virtual classrooms offer a repair pathway which focuses on the individual’s behaviour, helping them to understand and modify it. If students choose not to complete their behaviour pathway work, it means they have to go back into isolation on their return to school. Consequently, more often than not, schools report that the percentage of students completing this work is very high, as they see it as a preferred alternative to isolation. 

Providing excluded students with access to virtual classrooms also means they have structured time when they are out of school, so their parents can measure what they are doing at all times. Progress is also continuously monitored by the school during this time, which means that schools can contact parents at any time and update them on their child’s efforts, and reintroduction to the school environment is seamless. 

Engaging those in Inclusion Centres 

Ash Khan, assistant headteacher at Sheffield Inclusion Centre, is currently using a virtual classroom with 12 of his students. He shared how it works in his classrooms and the results he’s seen, “When we initially started looking into virtual classrooms, our objective was very clear: engage and support the students enough to get them back into mainstream education.  

“Some of our students are at home and out of mainstream education for various reasons; they might suffer from anxiety or other mental health issues, for example. A lot of the issues we see arise from with fear and vulnerability, but there are others that just don’t like education. For whatever reason, the students aren’t engaged, and we’ve got to try and reengage them. 

“Students have two one-hour sessions a day with our staff using the virtual classroom – one in the morning and another in the afternoon, and receive an attendance mark for each. We have a virtual face-to-face check-in with each student after the session to see how they are getting on, and set work for them to complete throughout the rest of the day. 

“There is a tracking system in place so we can see at a glance, how many times they’ve logged on, what they’re doing, how they’re progressing, and so on. That is a key thing for us; we’ve got to know that these students are at home doing their work, not wandering the streets. That’s why we have a member of staff observing these students on the webcam during each session, so we can see that the student is there and that they’re safe and well at home.  

Two of our students, who have only been working with the virtual classroom system since June, have just informed us that they want to come back to school and learn within mainstream education for a few days a week as they now feel ready. That’s the dream outcome! - Ash Khan, assistant headteacher at Sheffield Inclusion Centre

“The results have been incredible. We had a student that was on it a while back – he was on it a lot in the evenings and during lunchtime for his homework and the curriculum in general. It really helped him catch up on missed education. And, two of our students, who have only been working with the virtual classroom system since June, have just informed us that they want to come back to school and learn within mainstream education for a few days a week as they now feel ready. That’s the dream outcome!”

If schools can successfully engage their students, those within the classroom walls and those outside, then they are less likely to slip under the radar, for whatever reason; virtual classrooms can provide an effective way bridge this gap, and benefit all students.

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