The Scottish Executive has given a £700,000 boost to the leading-edge Scholar e-learning programme developed by Heriot-Watt University. The funding was announced by Scotland's deputy minister for education, Nicol Stephen, at a conference on the evaluation of the programme.
Heriot-Watt has taken a radical approach to improving links between school, further and higher education through online courses at Advanced Higher level in science and engineering subjects. This is equivalent to Higher National Certificate and first-year university courses, easing transition between the sectors.
Heriot-Watt entrants who have successfully completed the Scholar programme can come into the second year, potentially leaving with a masters qualification after four years. The pilot project, which involved almost 1,200 students in southeast Scotland, will now be made available to 40,000 students throughout the country.
Both Mr Stephen and Roy Leitch, Heriot-Watt's assistant principal for learning strategies, stressed that the teacher was at the heart of the project, which includes text as well as online material.
Professor Leitch said: "Some will say this is all about sticking folk in a computer room and telling them to get on with it, but it is the exact opposite. It gives more time to focus on student needs."
The evaluation of the pilot project by Glasgow Caledonian University found widespread praise for the quality of the material, which Heriot-Watt will also aim at the overseas market. Students, who could access the material at home as well as in school or college, benefited from extra online support from Heriot-Watt. They enjoyed online links to tutors and other students. It gave them freedom to work when they wanted, and made it easier to catch up on work they had missed.
But the evaluation found many reports of technical difficulties, usually due to internal networking problems. "Sometimes it was likely to have been associated with (local) authority firewall access protection systems and service-provider difficulties. Such problems were generally regarded as initial teething problems," the report says.
Professor Leitch said: "Scholar has achieved in one year what many people thought impossible. Scotland is now at the forefront of educational developments worldwide."
He said students appreciated self-paced study, enabling them to go over difficult areas again, while passing quickly through areas they found easier. "More and more students are working part time, so their availability is becoming constrained," he said.