Why Choose A Virtual School?

Covid-19 could be a watershed moment for virtual schools. New virtual schools are opening across South East Asia and enrolment numbers are on the up. But can a virtual school ever be a replacement for the classroom? WhichSchoolAdvisor talks to the principals of two different virtual schools based in Singapore and looks in-depth at the reality of having a full-time virtual education.
Why Choose A Virtual School?
By Carli Allan
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Online learning is starting to come to an end. As Covid-19 restrictions ease in countries including Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, we are seeing a return to traditional methods of education within a brick-and-mortar classroom. While schools may be using a blended learning model, many parents and students welcome the return to at least some form of conventional, classroom-based teaching with open arms.

But what if families prefer the freedom and flexibility of distance learning? For the past 20 years, virtual schools have offered an alternative to traditional classrooms with walls. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this online model of education has become even more popular in some parts of the world; in the UAE, for example, iCademy Middle East has seen a huge spike in enrolments.

Although the US has led the way for virtual education, we are seeing more fully online schools ‘opening’ worldwide. In the UK, Harrow School has launched an online sixth form offering A Levels from September 2020 to ‘sell’ and deliver a UK education to students living overseas. And in Hong Kong, Kent College (Hong Kong) has opened with an online campus offering IELTS, iGCSE and A Level courses, which are taught by UK teachers from Kent College.

New virtual schools in South East Asia

In South East Asia, two international school groups have launched full-time virtual schools that use technology to offer a stay-at-home education. Invictus International, which has campuses in Singapore, Hong Kong and Cambodia, has opened a new online primary school called Invictus Family. Open for Grades 1-6 (six to 11 years old), teaching is based on the UK National Curriculum and Singaporean maths, and all lessons are taught live on Zoom.

GIIS SMART Campus is continuing to offer its Virtual School scheme, which was launched during the temporary closure of its campuses in Singapore in March due to Covid-19 restrictions. Students can attend classes virtually from anywhere in the world, and they virtually 'join' the classes being taught on the SMART Campus. Enrolment is open for all grades from kindergarten through to Grade 12 for the school’s Indian and international (International Baccalaureate) streams; children can start lessons within just four days of enrolling at the school.

While Invictus Family is offering a permanent alternative to the conventional classroom, GIIS is offering students the option of attending a virtual school until global travel restrictions are lifted; it may consider extending this. These two different virtual school models offer an insight into how an education can be delivered from Singapore to students across South East Asia – and how they offer both pros and cons.

Students attending GIIS Virtual School join lessons remotely on the SMART Campus in Singapore

Why choose a virtual school?

Now that campuses are reopening, what are the advantages of attending a full-time virtual school without walls? Cost is certainly a key factor. Invictus fees are SGP 5,570 (USD 4,000), which is SGP 10,000 less than its Singapore campus. Invictus Family principal Nicholas Duggan (who is also principal for Invictus’ new Centrium campus in Singapore) says that students can access an Invictus education for “considerably less than the on campus full-time study option”.

Annual fees at GIIS range from SGD 15,000 to SGD 22,000, which is the same fee structure for its Singapore campus and is considerably lower than the cost of tuition at most international schools here; fees may be lower for students living elsewhere.

As ‘back to school’ images emerge of students wearing masks all day, playing 2m apart in the playground, and being seated in rows of single desks in the classroom, parents may prefer to wait for restrictions to be lifted before returning to campus. Some may be waiting for travel restrictions to be lifted before they can move to a new country or return to their home country. Or, as Duggan explains, others may prefer the online learning model that they have trialled for the past few weeks or months.

“Other important factors include learning style. For some students, learning in a virtual classroom may suit the style of learning, which requires greater independent learning skills.
"Convenience is another key factor in choosing virtual learning. It may just be due to the geographical location of students, where it may be impossible or impractical to travel to study.”

It’s unsurprising to see GIIS roll out a full-time virtual school from its Singapore-based SMART Campus. After all, this is the campus that has promoted itself to be a technology-driven school of the future. It was built in 2018 with virtual classrooms equipped with cameras and, prior to school closures, students on the SMART Campus were already virtually ‘attending’ lectures in other parts of the world.

Melissa Maria, principal at the GIIS SMART Campus, says:

“Virtual schools are the new avatars of modern-day schools and an emerging reality that cannot be ignored by parents, students and teachers. The recent emergence of virtual schools has made us realise that education can move beyond the traditional classrooms of brick and mortar and can be made effective in a virtual learning environment with the help of technology.

“Parents should choose schools that have the capability to operate virtually. This is because virtual schools can offer uninterrupted learning in times of crisis like Coronavirus. At the same time, virtual schools make students independent learners, who learn to use technology for the benefit of learning and independently operate devices to connect to the online lessons.”

What does a virtual school look like?

Following months of distance learning within mainstream education, families have a much clearer idea of what a virtual school is. But, before making the decision to break out of the traditional primary or secondary school mould, consider if this is the best academic track for your child.

Will they benefit from the blended model of online learning and classroom teaching that many physical schools are likely to offer for at least part of the 2020-21 academic year? Or will they thrive in the more independent study environment of a virtual school?

Typical of many virtual schools, both Invictus Family and GIIS Virtual School, deliver synchronous (live) lessons for most of the daily timetable. Duggan highlights the importance of this two-way mode of teaching, saying, “Many platforms depend heavily on asynchronous (on demand) learning which removes much of the live interaction that we feel is so important.”

Many physical schools combined live lessons pre-recorded tutorials and webinars to deliver their distance learning, whereas a virtual school such as GIIS and Invictus Family is live for the entire school day and follows a structured daily timetable like a physical international school.

Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) explains further: “GIIS is offering live sessions in all its campuses. Teachers are conducting virtual lessons during the school hours and following the regular school timetable from 9am to 3.30 pm.

"They are using creative ways to teach different subjects to students; even advanced subjects like chemistry and biology that require many visual elements are being taught effectively through virtual lessons. As well as academic subjects, life skills lessons like culinary and yoga are also being delivered successfully to students through virtual classes.”

Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to online learning, though. As distance learning has taught us, specialist subjects such as PE, art and languages are challenging to teach beyond the classroom.

While there are some learning experiences that simply cannot be replicated digitally, Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) explains the innovative ways of teaching many practical subjects.

“For example, using online collage apps; holding theme-based quizzes on music and sport; organising online fitness, yoga and dance sessions; and hosting activities and competitions for students to share their one-minute videos on art forms.”

Duggan (Invictus Family) adds:

“We feel these areas are extremely important – even more so in a virtual school context. We ensure, firstly, that students have the right tools and space to do these subjects, and they are guided by the specialist teacher. Where needed, images, music files and PE videos of student work is shared with the teacher for grading.”

Invictus Family is offering a permanent alternative to the conventional classroom

How does teaching differ in a virtual school?

As many teachers in traditional schools can now testify, online teaching is an entirely new experience. It requires tech-savvy teachers of a certain personality type and with a certain mindset.

On paper at least, GIIS SMART Campus teachers have the online pedagogy to deliver virtual lessons. As well as being technology-trained and adept at using virtual classroom technology, they are all Apple-certified and trained in using Smart devices.

Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) explains: “Virtual classroom sessions are not new to GIIS, and the students and teachers have been using the facility for exchange programmes with other schools or knowledge-sharing sessions with subject matter experts from around the world.

"Since virtual learning is not new to GIIS, the teachers and students quickly moved on to fully-fledged Virtual School without any delay in learning the new approach to delivering and taking lessons.”

Online teachers need to develop different methods of teaching and evaluating; but how do they check for understanding, for example, if they are not present in the classroom?

Invictus Family has a small faculty recruited from Singapore and the UK, and Duggan is confident that with a teacher to student ratio of 1:25 (the same as its physical campuses), students will still get the support needed.

He says: “When you think about it, a teacher in a classroom is either presenting to class, or moving around groups of students with assigned work, perhaps grouped by ability level, or speaking individually with one student. This is exactly the same using video conferencing with options for private conversations which the teacher controls.

At GIIS, the teacher to student ratio varies greatly from 1:5 up to 1:40 depending on the subject and cohort size – so how can students in the larger classes get one-to-one access to teaching staff?

Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) explains: “There are varied channels of feedback including Kahoot, Google Classroom, one-on-one during Zoom classes, interactive learning boards like Explain Everything and Educreations, and GSuite tools such as Google Docs.”

How involved do parents need to be in a virtual school?

While virtual schools offer a very different option to home schooling – parents are the full-time teachers in the latter – they do require some degree of parental involvement. Many parents thrust into the role of distance learning ‘teacher’ this year can vouch for how daunting, challenging and time-consuming it can be.

Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) says that its “students are more enthusiastic and forthcoming for virtual classes and like to be independently involved with minimum intervention from the parents”. This sounds encouraging – but it may not apply to every family considering a virtual school.

Duggan (Invictus Family) does admit that younger children will require more parental guidance.

“At a certain age, children are not able to self-regulate and the parent will need to help the teacher prior to and with any follow-up directions, however, during the instruction and monitored work online, the parent is not involved.”

It’s a point that suggests virtual schooling is perhaps better suited to older students, and those who can work well independently.

Invictus Family is a full-time virtual school offering a primary education

What are the limitations of a virtual school?

The biggest missing link in a virtual school is social interaction. So, what happens to the social aspect of learning when students are not attending a physical class, and don’t have the opportunity for face-to-face interactions with their peers?

GIIS and Invictus believe in the opportunities they offer for students, parents, and teachers to come together (offline) to build friendships and a school community. But are these enough to develop social skills?

Duggan (Invictus Family) says that its students meet in real-time through video meets and chats and, if living close by, they will meet and become friends. Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) says that Zoom parties and chat sessions are organised by teachers.

“GIIS Virtual School is providing great and innovative opportunities for students to socialise and go beyond academics. Some recent events conducted virtually, which were a hit and were joined by both students and parents, are Virtual Cook-Off, Spell Online and Quiz Online.”

Also, there are geographical restrictions. If virtual schools such as Invictus and GIIS are delivering live lessons based on the Asian time zone, then students in different countries may struggle to be on online. In such cases, GIIS offers an alternative to live lessons. “There are rare cases of students being stuck in time zones that are wide apart. In such cases, the students are relying on materials, notes and assignments shared by teachers on Google Classroom, and they can contact students offline.”

Another weakness of virtual schooling is its lack of accreditation. While GIIS and Invictus are registered with the Committee for Private Education (CPE) in Singapore to deliver a private education within the city-state, they are not accredited to deliver a virtual platform (online schooling is currently outside the remit of Singapore’s CPE). Parents may find some reassurance in the fact that both GIIS and Invictus offer the support and accountability of an established international school group.

Duggan (Invictus Family) adds: “Our documentation for online learning covers the rights and responsibilities of the students, teachers and parents, so expectations are clear and can be addressed if issues arise. We also advise and ensure good school practice which includes online policies for safeguarding.”

Are virtual schools here to stay?

Invictus Family and GIIS Virtual School may be a decent substitute to classroom learning in the time of a pandemic such as Covid-19, but can and will they replace the classroom for some families in the long-term? Or, are they a stop gap for families before their children return to a traditional school in more ‘normal’ times?

Duggan says that Invictus Family is a long-term project that is here to stay. Students do have the option of applying to one of its physical campuses in Singapore, Hong Kong or Cambodia at any time, but they will need to meet standard application procedures.

GIIS’ Virtual School will run for at least as long as Covid-19 restrictions are in place, and the school may then return to using 100% classroom-based teaching for all students. Alternatively, Maria (GIIS SMART Campus) predicts: “Blended learning, a balance of virtual and physical school may be the way to go for the future.”

GIIS Virtual School is teaching students at home and in classrooms across Asia from its campus in Singapore

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