By Gavin McLean, International Business Development Director, Edmentum International
With the needs of students continuously evolving and the ever-changing demands from the education industry, schools are under increasing pressure to offer the widest possible range of courses. Central to this is recruiting and retaining highly qualified teaching staff, yet this can be challenging, particularly when it comes to specialised subjects and curricula.
One solution addressing these demands is virtual schools. With the flexibility and scope to provide multiple courses, taught by qualified teachers in an online environment, virtual schools are growing in popularity. Starting as an extension for home school networks in high school, it is now being used across all K-12 as well as a much wider range of settings.
According to research, student enrolment in state virtual schools increases 11 per cent year-on-year (2012-2016). There is already an established market in Middle Eastern and South American countries and the field is also gaining traction in China and East Asia. This increase in attention has led to full time virtual schools increasing by 8 per cent a year. In 2018, the global virtual school market had an estimated worth of US $2.39 Billion (2018) and is expected to reach US $4.92 billion by end of 2024. Subsequently, there are significant opportunities and the benefits offered to both students and teachers are invaluable, and while the education sector faces significant challenges, the virtual school market has the potential to address these issues and create effective ways of working across the world.
Addressing the challenges and opportunities
Let’s look at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a prime example. This alliance is comprised of six Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Throughout these countries, there has been a rise in student enrolment numbers in private schools; the number of Emirati students (citizens of the UAE) is expected to rise to 66 per cent by 2023, in Saudi it will increase from 18 per cent (2017) to 30 per cent by 2023, and in Kuwait over 40 per cent of all students are in private K12 education.
While these projected figures show a real appetite for the private school sector, there aren’t always enough resources to meet this demand. For example, in Qatar, while enrolment numbers are expected to rise to 70 per cent, there are not enough private schools. In Saudi, they are investing $51 billion in education spending and 480 new educational buildings for 2019, and 6,000 new K-12 educational buildings by 2030, yet, obtaining permits and licenses for schools can be time-consuming. Added to this is the areas in which schools are built. In Kuwait for instance, the government often provides land in locations away from residential areas, creating an access barrier to learning. With big targets to hit, virtual schools will address the demands, and be able to provide the much-needed support through a more accessible and convenient way for children to learn, no matter where they are based.
Another challenge faced by traditional brick and mortar schools are high staff turnovers – often due to the expatriate populations in places like the UAE. Therefore, although enrolment numbers are increasing, staff numbers may not be reflective of this, which can often lead to disruption in learning cycles which inevitably impact performance. Offering virtual assistance can not only mitigate disruption but means that there are no gaps during staff changes, lending itself to greater consistency and continuity of learning for pupils.
There is also a shortage of qualified teachers in areas like Saudi, due to their restrictions on the number of expats allowed, or Kuwait, where expats under 30 aren’t allowed to obtain a work permit or those over 30 are required to hold a Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate degree. This significantly limits the pipeline of talent and makes it difficult to attract quality teachers, especially when competing with the rest of the GCC and wider education markets. Instead, we need to be able to offer a solution that allows an influx of teachers regardless of difficult scenarios – whether that’s shortages, high-turnovers or lack of course choices for students – so that they can teach in a way that has little restriction and offers them more flexibility. This will inevitably lead to a more effective way of filling the teacher gaps.
The challenges presented aren’t just prevalent in the GCC either; the same themes emerge throughout South America too. The Brazilian Ministry of Education’s budget for 2019 was projected to be US $30 billion. However, in May 2019, the new Minister of Education announced there would be a 30 per cent cut in education budgets. This is a real concern, which will likely have a significant impact on workloads and efficiencies, inevitably leading to further teacher shortages. This is only amplified by the fact that the budget has been specifically cut for professional development too, and any attempts to modernise teaching practice have been blocked by teaching unions. To this end, virtual learning environments are an effective way of stemming the tide and ensuring young people have access to high quality education in a way that mirrors 21st century lifestyles and helps overcome the challenges experienced by students as a result of teacher shortages and budget cuts.
Further to this, private bilingual schools have to offer US high school courses. It is often difficult to find certified US high school teachers in Brazil, making virtual schooling an attractive alternative. This not only increases the likelihood of teachers seeking other ways to teach and pursue professional development opportunities, but also for parents looking for more consistent, accessible and flexible ways for their children to learn.
Being able to provide alternative learning options presents many advantages, the first being flexibility. This not only includes flexibility for teachers and students when it comes to teaching and learning in a physical sense, but also the ability to expand course choices and allow students to enroll at any time of the year. This is especially important for those with families who work abroad or have travel commitments. This will not only help to attract and retain students but will also be a surefire way of satisfying parents. While provision for students is incredibly important, so too is the challenge of filling the gap when it comes to teacher shortages and providing a virtual school environment is an effective way of combatting this.
When it comes to alternative pathways, with the right platform, students will also have the option of accessing vocational courses, helping them to effectively prepare for future careers and have a deeper understanding of the requirements and skills needed in order for them to be successful in the world of work.
Accredited virtual schools will also offer international students the opportunity for Dual Diploma Tracks which will help them achieve an accredited US HS Diploma in order to access US colleges. This can be done alongside or in place of a local curriculum, again providing maximum flexibility and accessibility.
While there are a range of challenges facing education and the private school sector, with this, comes just as many opportunities. Therefore, it’s important for countries to look ahead and identify their own educational challenges and assess how alternative approaches to education can help. Whether this works in conjunction with a more traditional learning environment, or is offered as a standalone provision, it’s important that we provide a challenging but fun and rewarding academic setting. Afterall, empowering both students and staff to take control of their teaching and learning is the key to success.
Author: Gavin McLean has nearly thirty years’ experience in business and curriculum development in international education. Based in the United Kingdom, Gavin has worked for some of the largest international publishers including Macmillan Education and National Geographic Learning, and has consulted for public and private sector companies, multinational agencies and donors in various global markets. Gavin and his team are dedicated to working with international schools to implement technology that genuinely benefits teachers and students.
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