Tradition and Innovation in Online Education

18/06/20217 minute read
Tradition and Innovation in Online Education

Growth of Online Learning

Julius Caesar, former consul and general of Rome, once said that “Experience is the teacher of all things.” 2000 years later, at Crimson Global Academy, it’s extraordinary that this quote is still relevant. Some of our expert technical staff here probably know more about educational technology than anyone else in the world, and yet we are still guided by millennia of experience gained by teachers on how teaching and learning works best.

The rapid growth of online schooling around the world has undoubtedly been driven by the continuing global challenges of Covid-19. However, the growth of online schooling has also arisen from spectacular developments in technology, allowing teachers to replicate the best elements of a classroom in a bricks-and-mortar school, but also to innovate with creative use of online technology – with the huge added advantage that this top-quality education can now be delivered to students anywhere in the world with an internet connection. This blog will discuss how Crimson Global Academy uses cutting edge technology to deliver online education which also includes the very best aspects of traditional teaching.

Socrates in Ancient Greece

The first teacher in history to think systematically about the process of education was Socrates, in ancient Greece.  He said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”, and this quote is enshrined in a teaching method now called the “Socratic Method”.  This is (according to Wikipedia):

a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions”.

The Socratic Method suggests that the best way to learn and teach in the classroom is to ask lots of questions and to answer lots of questions – in other words the process of education becomes interactive. Although Socrates devised his method well over 2000 years ago, it has become the Holy Grail of successful online teaching and learning, because, in an online classroom, using technology effectively to support this interaction is fundamental. Crimson Global Academy calls this approach the “Flipped Classroom”, in which teachers use question-and-answer to help students to develop a deeper understanding of the material in the curriculum.

A common and sometimes justified criticism of online schools is that the learning experience can become passive: that students sit at home, on their own in front of their computers, passively absorbing information that the teacher provides them. This model of education, now discredited, has been called the “empty vessel” model, in which students are imagined as empty vessels ready to be filled up with knowledge provided by a teacher. This is a ridiculously naïve view of education, and it’s hard to believe that it was ever given credence. Socrates told us that we need to avoid this passive approach, and to teach and learn in a much more interactive way.

Moving Forward 2,000 Years…

In the 1980s, in the UK, school mathematics education was in disarray.  National standards of attainment in mathematics were poor and declining, and the UK was performing badly against international benchmarks.  Huge numbers of mathematics teachers routinely delivered mind-numbingly boring “chalk and talk” lessons, in which the teacher explained a topic at the start of the lesson and the students then practiced this in a seemingly endless set of repetitive tasks.  In response the UK government commissioned an inquiry, “Mathematics Counts”.   In the forward to the report, the Chair, Dr W.H. Cockcroft, wrote:

Few subjects in the school curriculum are as important to the future of the nation as mathematics; and few have been the subject of more comment and criticism in recent years. This report tackles that criticism head on. It offers constructive and original proposals for change. It should be read by those responsible for school mathematics at all levels."

The plain-speaking approach of the inquiry allowed it to cut through decades of entrenched bad practice in mathematics teaching, and to propose that teachers should employ a mixture of six different activities in the classroom.  These activities have come to define best practice in mathematics teaching, and provide an excellent framework for online teachers, in any subject, to design successful online lessons.

Activity 1: Exposition by the teacher

This is a point relevant for all teaching. No matter how much sophisticated technology is used in lessons, teachers still need to explain ideas so that students can understand them. For example, if a mathematics teacher is teaching quadratic equations, the teacher might well employ technology, such as software to draw graphs, in order to assist with the explanation. However, the basic process of explaining how quadratic equations can be solved is a traditional teaching skill which is vital in both online classrooms and bricks-and-mortar classrooms. There are times in the classroom when no amount of interactive question-and-answer with the Socratic Method, or sophisticated use of technology, is going to help; teachers just need to explain an idea so that students understand it.

Activity 2: Discussion between teacher and students, and between students themselves

This is the foundation of the Socratic Method, and this is where online classrooms come into their own. Experienced and skilled teachers can employ technology in a way that promotes discussion. In particular, the Cockcroft Report noted that discussions between students themselves was particularly effective. Group work between students can bring great benefits to learning in online classrooms, and is popular in lessons with Crimson Global Academy. Our technical staff are currently developing the “Crimson Classroom”, with technical support for teachers to set up and manage groups in a range of ways during online lessons.

Activity 3: Appropriate practical work

Science teachers take first prize here.  Science teachers have long understood the importance of practical work, and of embedding creative practical activities into their curricula.  In contrast, mathematics teachers have traditionally, and unimpressively, been aloof about practical work.  The Cockcroft Report demonstrated that practical work can bring many benefits to learning and teaching across a wide range of subjects. Including mathematics.  For example, in online classes at Crimson Global Academy, students might use Excel or Python to analyse a set of data, and then use this to discuss findings in groups, or in question-and-answer sessions with the whole class.  Practical work is used to enhance interactivity in an online classroom, and to move away from passive learning.

Activity 4: Consolidation and practice of fundamental skills and routines

This is another activity, recommended by the Cockcroft Report, in which learning and teaching needs to return to its fundamental traditions. In our example of learning quadratic equations, no amount of interactive question-and-answer will ensure that students become secure in solving quadratic equations. Equally, a teacher’s exposition, no matter how eloquent, and no matter how expertly supported with sophisticated technology, will not ensure that students are independently able to solve quadratic equations. There is a point in any classroom, bricks-and-mortar or online, where students need time to practice key skills. This is perhaps the least exciting and glamorous style of teaching, but it is vital: students can practice in order to master the skills they need for their subjects.

Activity 5: Problem solving, including the application of mathematics to everyday situations

This activity recommended by the Cockcroft Report is an area in which online teaching and learning can shine.  The technology used by skilled online teachers can facilitate many creative opportunities for problem solving.  For example, here is a rather dull traditional approach to teaching the topic of functions in the A Level Mathematics course:

Given x=5, find f(x), g(x), fg(x) and gf(x).

Below is an example of how Crimson Global Academy students approached this topic.  The code snippet shows how the two functions were explored in Python.

def f(x): return 2 * x + 1

def g(x): return x * x
x = 5;




The students coded functions into Python to understand applications of functions in computer programming, alongside developing the traditional mathematics skills needed for this topic.

Activity 6: Investigational work

Mathematics teachers use the term “Investigation” to refer to extended problem-solving activities.  This teaching approach has often been recognised as extremely effective for learning.  The approach has come to the fore in online learning, because the technology available can be used to create such interesting problems to investigate.

Gazing into a Crystal Ball

It’s clear that online schools can play a vital role in global innovation in education, given the great expertise that these schools have in technology in education.  At Crimson Global Academy we have projects to develop new platforms for online classrooms, and to refine our assessment of student learning, so that we can accurately track the progress of students and support them to maximise their progress.  We are also working to develop AI-based technologies in education.

However, alongside this great innovation it’s also clear in education that all schools, online or otherwise, will need teachers with traditional and proven skills and experience to deliver great learning and teaching.  This is the perfect vision for the future of education: a fine balance of tradition, with experienced and skilled teachers leading learning in the classroom, and innovation, with technology used effectively and excitingly to support education.

- By Dr. Andrew Daniel, Dean of Pastoral Care and Mathematics teacher at CGA.