An alternative to mainstream school education

Priscila Zigunovas
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Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, a teacher has developed a school model focused on student success. Their e-learning approach offers real time classes for local and international students.

In many schools around the world, the learning model still remains fairly close to what it was 150 years ago: kids watching a teacher at the front of a classroom. That is the reality of learning for many children. At ITS Education Asia, the idea of education is that it should be compatible with modern life. Hundreds of students from Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East, and East Africa study in a flexible learning model through real-time, online classes.

“The potential of online learning used correctly is the way that we can fit education into modern life and into the way that modern children actually experience life. The ITS model allows us to be much more accommodating to what a current learning generation is actually doing and how they need to be prepared for the future, using technology, leading things, being able to collaborate, using social media,” says Danny Harrington, co-founder of the institution. “We cannot run away from these things, we have to embrace them and work out how we can effectively educate people without holding them back for the future.”

“We cannot run away from these things, we have to embrace them and work out how we can effectively educate people without holding them back for the future.”

Looking for a new pathway

Harrington went to Hong Kong in 1997, and worked as a geography teacher for a small tutorial group. After a few years, he realized there was something missing in Hong Kong’s education landscape.

“In Hong Kong, you only had two kinds of education going on. One was to go to a mainstream school, a standard kind of school that we see all over the world, where you sit in a class with 30 to 40 students and you just go through that curriculum, all very rigid and traditional,” he says. “The other kind of education were private tutors and private tutorial schools, like the one I was working for. But they are not able to provide full time education, so they are only ever providing support to children in their mainstream schools.”

Over discussions with other teachers, Harrington found out that they agreed with his vision. “We would think to ourselves, ‘what about all the people that cannot get a good education from a mainstream school? And what about the fact that most children in a mainstream school are not maximizing their potential?’ So the idea of ITS and its purpose was born out of creating more options for learners in Hong Kong, so that they could find ways to go through their learning, go through their schooling, that were more suited to them as individuals, but still get all of the important qualifications that they needed to be able to continue their education, perhaps, at university or college, or even just to go to the workplace.” In 2005, Harrington and a colleague named Gary Hadler set up ITS Education Asia in order to fill that gap.

ITS Education Asia in Hong Kong. Photo AFP Isaac Lawrence.
ITS Education Asia in Hong Kong. Photo AFP Isaac Lawrence.

An innovative e-learning model

ITS started as a physical school in Hong Kong. In 2009, a second school was founded, and in 2012 the founders began to wonder what was the next step. “We began to think about online education, and we found that there was a bit of a jump in the quality of learning management systems and virtual classrooms that were being made available, becoming more accessible for smaller institutions,” says Harrington.

At that moment, instead of building new physical schools, ITS decided to allow anybody with an internet connection to access their existing schools. “That was the approach we determined, and that is where our online model came from. There are very few institutions running live, online classes in real-time where the students and the teachers are connected, as they would be in any class in any physical school,” he adds.

With that approach, ITS ended up choosing a model with a small profit margin. “That is why nobody else is doing that, but we think it is the most valuable and highest quality and it felt like a natural move to us,”

Harrington explains. “We have got such a depth being a proper school organization, unlike many other online options, that students really get that level of assessment, understanding, and flexibility all mixed in. Most of the time when you get ‘flexible learning’ online, you actually just get electronically delivered distance learning. You do not have the teacher in [so present in the learning environment]. We are the only ones that really bring the benefits of everything together into one place. And they get this for a fraction of the cost that they would if they went off to a university. That is a key point.”

A flexible online environment

The classes at ITS happen through Blackboard Collaborate, and the learning management system (LMS) is Moodlerooms. “What I love about Moodlerooms is from a holistic and strategic point of view. First of all, for us, it is an excellent central point to bring together the stakeholders in any one learner’s situation. In traditional schools, there is a big disconnect and often big time lapses between what students do and what parents see, for example. When you create something in Moodlerooms, everything is recorded and stored in the LMS. Any one of those stakeholders can go and look at it at any time. That just makes our ability to help a learner along that pathway so much better,” he says. “The second thing I love about it is just the fact that Moodle is so widely used and accepted, particularly in the international school community and in the UK school community. For us, to be collaborating with other schools is very easy if we are all talking about the same system. So I like it because it is successful already.”

Students working on their computer at ITS Education Asia in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP Isaac Lawrence.
Students working on their computer at ITS Education Asia. Photo: AFP Isaac Lawrence.

FLIP learning

ITS runs what is called the FLIP pedagogy or FLIP learning, a modern approach in which F stands for flexible environment, L stands for learning culture, I stands for intentional content and P stands for professional educators. Harrington explains it point by point: “By providing a flexible environment, we allow students to learn where they want and, to a certain extent, when they want, but certainly where they are is up to them, because online, with Collaborate Ultra, you can be anywhere,” he says. “The learning culture is about being student-centered, having much greater depth of exploration of subject material and lots of reflection and extension of ideas that the traditional curriculum does not do. The intentional content means that there are still points where you have got to actually teach things, you cannot just have students self-learning, so we make sure we identify those and then make them accessible to everybody. The teachers are of course still there, and they are incredibly important in this model. They are available to students at all times, they are assessing formatively much more than summatively, and we encourage them to collaborate and train with other teachers to share ideas and build up a real ecosystem of learning professionalism.”

Educational services

Although ITS was created as an alternative to mainstream education, they still needed to be a part of the system. Students still needed certificates. “Therefore, we offered non-mainstream pathways to the mainstream qualifications. Now we are very UK-focused in our accreditations, so we provide the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), and the International A-Level, the two things that finish off high school or secondary school in the UK. They are recognized globally, so you can use them in many countries for work or university application.”

Over time, ITS added to its portfolio further qualifications from the UK and the BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council), including official admissions courses, professional counselling and education planning. Also, ITS was the first in Hong Kong to open a school placement service. “The purpose here is that we will happily take a student at any point in their learning life and we will help them along the way with as much as they need, for as long as they need, and then, whenever they need to move on to, we help them identify that, and then achieve that. That is really what we are about,” affirms Harrington.

When asked about ITS best practices, Harrington says there is only one. “Our best practice – and it is also the starter of our philosophy, everything we do depends on it – is really, truly, honestly, keeping the student at the center of everything,” he emphasizes. “The way we organise things, plan, and are always

asking, ‘what is best for the learner?’ That is the best practice that any educator can ever apply, and everything flows from that, and everything is subordinate to that. So you have to ask the question first and then you can decide how you organize yourself around that to deliver it.”

Danny Harrington, co-founder of ITS Education Asia
Photo: AFP Isaac Lawrence.

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