We’re into a third national lockdown, and it’s clear that the experience of teaching and learning is quite possibly changing forever. Investing in a virtual learning environment is not now simply an option, it’s essential, as most schools continue to future-proof with a blended approach to education, making the most of both traditional and high-tech methods. But, deciding which platform to use, how to implement it and how much to spend on it is a head-scratcher for many school leaders. Get it wrong and they could see their students – as well as some of their best staff – pressing the escape button.

MTM’s survey in June 2020, ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Parental Perceptions of Independent Schools’, gave a valuable insight into the importance parents attached to the quality of the online learning their children’s schools were offering during the summer term closure. Unsurprisingly, it was enormous. So much so that since the start of the new academic year, the admissions offices of high- performing independent and state schools have been inundated with calls from parents keen to find places for children who, they worried, had missed out on valuable learning.


Top of the shopping list

Of course, virtual learning platforms have rocketed to the top of most schools’ shopping lists. Those already using them have spent money and time refining their systems for greater reliance through periods of self- isolation, and those caught under-equipped have been snapping them up sharpish.


Artificial intelligence in online learning

The range of systems available has increased with demand, as has their sophistication. A recent innovation is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in online learning, which enables the platform to offer an individualised learning programme for each user.


‘Tightens feedback’

‘AI works dynamically to give pupils exactly what they need to learn, and also tightens the feedback loop so that misconceptions are quickly identified and acted on,’ says Priya Lakhani, Chief Executive of Century, a learning platform that uses AI.

‘Recommendations for each student start on the completion of diagnostics at the beginning of the courses, but every click, every score, every interaction on Century is analysed, and the student’s pathway is modified, based on what the system learns about the user.’


Gap in knowledge

Explains Priya: ‘For example, if it detects that a student is struggling to complete a trigonometry task, the system’s AI works out whether that was because the student doesn’t understand angles, triangles or equations, and it then recommends the relevant mini-lesson (a “nugget”) to fill the gap in knowledge. Then it returns to the trigonometry.’


Time and energy for learning

Bolton School has issued every one of its 2,000 students with an iPad equipped with Century and has seen favourable results.
‘Our approach is not about removing anything human,’ emphasises Nic Ford, Deputy Head (Academic) at Bolton’s Boys’ Division, ‘it is just about using extra tools to do things better than before, while saving students’ and teachers’ time and energy for learning.’

Bolton School’s students use the AI education platform mainly for home learning, but also to reinforce learning in the classroom. ‘The AI platform gives our pupils the ability to go back over work and receive feedback wherever they are, reducing the distance between teacher and student,’ says Nic.


Pedagogical practices

‘Students have learning resources available all the time, which of course helps,’ adds Nic, ‘but a primary benefit is the use of well-evidenced pedagogical practices, like recall and interleaving – principles that we know help learning.’


260,000 questions

Bolton School’s staff have been pleased with the innovation. ‘In just four months of using Century at Bolton, our boys have answered 260,000 questions on the platform,’ says Nic. ‘That would have taken a human teacher 2,166 hours, or 90 days, for the marking alone. That does not include the time taken to write the questions and personalise the assessment for each student, which would take even longer.

‘It becomes clear that personalising learning on this scale is just not possible without the help of technology.’


  • If you’d like to know what parents or staff think about recent changes to teaching and learning, in your organisation, or any other new approaches, chat to the friendly MTM team to arrange an online or telephone survey – email Daniel Cohen or call Dan on 01502 722787