Like any student in a traditional bricks and mortar school or college, the goal for many is to go university. After two or more years spent working in a virtual school setting, how well prepared are online students for the realities of university life out in the ‘big wide world’.
Rather than being seen as a disadvantage, how can an online education equip students with essential life skills to help them settle into the independent lifestyle of university more easily? And do online students have an equal opportunity when it comes to applying to Oxbridge, Russell Group and Ivy League universities, and elite courses including medicine and law?
To answer these questions, we take a closer look at the online schools offering a sixth form education to students in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia.
While online education isn’t for everyone, and it certainly comes with its own challenges, it can be an excellent way to develop self-sufficient and independent learners who are well-prepared for university life and beyond.
The autonomy that students have means that they are responsible for managing their own learning and taking ownership of their own education, which is exactly what they will be expected to do when studying for a degree.
One of the most well-established online schools, King’s InterHigh, has a secondary curriculum for Years 7-13; in the Sixth Form, it teaches International A Levels and is piloting an online two-year IB Diploma Programme for students aged 16-19 across the world. Its timetable of lessons is taught using polls, quizzes, chat function, break out rooms, messaging to class or direct to teacher; they are recorded so that students can revisit the lesson at any time.
Alessandro Capozzi, Head of Sixth Form at King’s InterHigh, says that students develop a level of independence and self-awareness beyond that of their peers learning in physical schools. As Mr Capozzi explains, an online education prepares students for the self-directed learning of a university degree in several ways.
“Studying online means students collaborate and discuss their studies with fellow with learners across the globe, in their local contexts. This exposes online students to a far broader set of ideas, cultures and ways of thinking, developing them as open-minded critical thinkers. This fits the international outlook that helps students thrive at university, empowering them to look beyond their boundaries and ‘comfort zones’ more readily to maintain a global viewpoint of their studies.
“Pupils are also far more adept at using technology to support their study, a reality of university life – be it academic journals, collaborating online or managing course resources. Teachers are also able to use this technology to ensure students get feedback regularly and have the opportunity to ask questions, as well as to direct students to other helpful resources online.”
The flexibility of an online education, and the chance for students to move at their own pace, also means that online students are more practiced at making effective use of their time outside of lessons.
“With the flexibility afforded by online school, they quickly get up to speed with how to manage their hours, set up focused spaces, and develop effective study routines,” adds Mr Capozzi.
The teaching methods of an online school can help students to be more accountable for themselves and equip them with valuable online learning abilities, both needed for the future workplace.
Minerva’s Virtual Academy, Harrow School Online and Pearson Online Academy UK Global are among those using the ‘flipped classroom’ teaching method, where secondary students work through interactive self-study materials first, then attend a live lesson in a virtual classroom.
Minerva's Virtual Academy’s Headmaster Lawrence Tubb lists improved time management skills, enhanced independence and collaborative learning as some of the valuable skills to learn from this style of teaching.
"Our focus on personal mentoring, time management, and independent thinking helps our students develop the confidence and self-motivation needed for success in higher education and beyond,” he says.
“Students at an online school become used to working with each other in creative ways and they are responsible for managing their own learning and taking ownership of their education.”
From as early as Year 9, most mainstream schools will have university and careers advisors on site to help students make informed decisions about their further education choices and career paths. There may be timetabled university guidance sessions, on-campus university fairs and interview practice sessions. An online school is not that different.
At King’s InterHigh, for example, students have access to platforms such as Unifrog and PathwayCTM, giving them the opportunity to connect with experts and learn all there is to know about their options, from university to apprenticeships. It runs a Pathways Programme where students attend weekly online sessions to help them shortlist university options, as well as weekly ‘pathways’ drop- ins for students to talk about applications and get expert advice.
Mr Capozzi adds:
“Through our programme, students also get to build key skills for the future with opportunities such as our work experience week, wider reading week, and a chance to talk one-to-one with tutors about applications and references.
“We run regular sessions to guide students on how to fill out their applications for universities around the world, including how to write stellar personal statements or entrance essays. These sessions are often complemented by information packs as well as sessions for parents and carers, enabling them to support their children too.”
When researching an online Sixth Form, it’s important to ask if the school offers this type of dedicated support for university applications. They should be playing a pivotal role in helping students to choose their degree course, select the right university, and complete the application process.
An online school should also be looking beyond the curriculum to stretch and challenge its students, just as you would expect from a bricks and mortar school. It needs to offer enrichment activities in Sixth Form that can develop skills and knowledge not necessarily taught in the classroom, as well as providing students with the opportunity to explore new areas of study and interests.
For example, Pearson Online Academy UK Global and Harrow School Online both offer the Extended Project Qualification, which helps students to develop skills that are directly relevant to and useful for university-level study.
At Minerva, there’s a Sixth Form Lifeskills & Enrichment Programme which Mr Tubb says, “introduces university-style thinking and skills that will be essential for modern life and the workplace”. This includes short courses such as The Netflix Effect: Introducing Critical Theory through the Art of Binge-Watching, Global Politics in a Zombie Pandemic, and How To Make Hard or Impossible Decisions. There’s also a lifeskills programme, covering cooking to managing a budget, healthy lifestyles to savings & investments, and the school partners with real world organisations such as International Space Station Educational Trust (ISSET) to offer project-based learning.
There is no single answer for this. Online schools can be a springboard to universities worldwide, to a degree course in anything from medicine or marketing. They prepare students for university by providing them with the same level of academic rigour as a traditional school and by offering A Level and IB courses that meet the same standards.
A look at the leavers’ destinations shared by most online schools will offer an insight into where their students move onto. It can be as diverse and international as any traditional school.
Commenting on the degree choices of students at King’s InterHigh, Mr Capozzi says:
“Being such an international school with a diverse intake, we really find that the main change is that each year, the range of choices gets broader. Today, the pathways available to students range from the traditional (such as medicine, law, and engineering) to the more contemporary and unique (such as specific forms of computing, applied mathematics, and business management).
"Equally, students are applying in significant numbers for more practical courses such as veterinary science, media, and design-related courses such as architecture and creative arts.”
There are several selective online schools more suited to high-achieving, ambitious and Oxbridge-seeking students, Harrow Online School certainly being one of them; this virtual sixth form teaches A Levels for an annual fee of around £15,000 (USD 18,800) and has a more rigorous academic curriculum than many other online schools.
These are not exclusive though, and most leading online schools will support students aiming for Oxbridge. Kings InterHigh offers an ‘elite university programme’ to guide students who are applying for medicine degrees or have interviews for Oxbridge. Minerva provides support for Oxbridge applicants through its standard mentoring programme, which offers enhanced private tuition for specialist subjects such as medicine, dentistry, and other competitive fields.
Another option is to study an online degree, which can be a great choice if students want flexibility or the chance to study a discipline that’s not readily available to them in their home country.
“Online degrees also allow students to balance education with careers or passions, and the university experience becomes more affordable when you can live anywhere while you learn. The key is working out what is right for you and finding a course that you will love,” adds Mr Capozzi.
Online schools can certainly be a great way to get a quality education, and to achieve the grades you need without having to attend lessons in person. However, after months or years of attending a virtual school – and learning within the comfort of your own home with your own schedule – it could be difficult to make the transition to a university setting.
As Mr Capozzi at King’s InterHigh explains, the skills that students gain while learning online model the behaviour and strategies they will need at university – and they can leave the school “that bit more mature and independent” than students from a traditional education.
As you’d expect from any Sixth Form, schools like King’s InterHigh run sessions on finding accommodation, student finance, managing independence and maintaining mental wellbeing – the difference is they are run online.
“We also run ‘mastering learning’ sessions that teach students about important features of university life – academic integrity, managing exam stress and learning how to learn best. We often find our learners become that bit more mature and independent because of our approaches,” adds Mr Capozzi.
Schools are not just a centre of learning, but also a place where students can socialise and be stretched and challenged beyond the academic curriculum. When choosing an online school, you should be looking at how they foster socialisation and encourage students to engage with each other outside of the academic lessons on offer. While this area has not been a strength of online schools in the past, it has now come to the fore.
Most schools will have a virtual common room, where students can directly message one another and discuss hobbies and interests. There may be weekly assemblies where students can share their learning, and they normally start the school day with a tutor group session. And several schools offer termly opportunities for students to meet up in person and school trips.
At My Online Schooling, students can register for up to three clubs of their choice per term, from chess to sign language, art to debating. Sophia High’s Beyond the Curriculum programme include activities such as computer science & coding, careers workshops with palaeontologists, a book talk series, and virtual talks from charity organisations.
King’s InterHigh runs extra-curricular activities ranging from chess to horse club, as well as career-based societies such as Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary or Journalism to support its virtual work experience placements for sixth formers.
Mr Capozzi explains why.
“We run a huge extracurricular programme with over 80 clubs and societies — something that mimics the kind of offer students have at university. These extracurriculars also enable students to practice connecting with likeminded peers and trying something new.”