Photo Daniel Harrington, ITS Education Asia in Hong Kong

An Alternative to Mainstream School Education

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Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Jul 13, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

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 remains close to what it was 150 years ago: teacher-centered rather than learner-centered, with children intently looking onto their  teacher who is typically standing at the front of the classroom. At ITS Education Asia, the learning model is quite different. ITS believes education 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, if 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 the current learning generation is actually doing, and how they need to be prepared for the future – using technology, leading, 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.” 

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 the 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 concept of ITS and its purpose was born out of creating more options for learners in Hong Kong. ITS was created so learners could find learning models that were more suited to them as individuals, but still earn 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 into the workplace.” In 2005, Harrington and a colleague named Gary Hadler set up ITS Education Asia in order to fill that gap. 

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 the next step was. “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 any student 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,” shares Harrington. 

He goes on to add, “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 [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

Classes at ITS happen through Blackboard Collaborate and their learning management system (LMS) is Blackboard Open LMS. “What I love about Blackboard Open LMS 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 Blackboard Open LMS, 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,” says Harrington. “The second thing I love about it is just the fact that Blackboard Open LMS 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.” 

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 stand for Intentional content, and P stands for Professional educators. “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 with Collaborate Ultra, you can be anywhere,” affirms Harrington. “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 have. 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. 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 has added further qualifications from the UK and the BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) to its portfolio, including official admissions courses, professional counselling and education planning. Also, ITS was the first institution 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 and for as long as they need. Then, whenever they need to move on to other things, we help them identify what that is and help them achieve it. That is really what we are about,” affirms Harrington. 

When asked about ITS best practices, Harrington confirms there is only one best practice that they follow. “Our best practice and 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 organize things, plan, and are always asking is, ‘What is best for the learner?’ That is the best practice that any educator can ever apply, and everything flows from that and is subordinate to that. So, you have to ask the question first and then you can decide how you organize yourself to deliver it.” 

Photos by: AFP – Isaac Lawrence