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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 Published at 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK


Netting a quick A level

Sue Doran: "I did very little study"

It normally takes sixth formers a couple of years to get two or three of them but now students willing to put in the graft at the computer screen can get an A level in just four weeks.

Part of a series by BBC News online's Gary Eason on different ways in which the Internet is being used in education.

People are being taught to get through an A level in business studies in a matter of weeks - without leaving home.

Their tutor uses the Internet as a resource - partly for sources of information, but also, through e-mail and chat software, to allow fast delivery of essays and his comments on them.

The tutor, Chris Sivewright, believes that in some cases it is a better method than classroom-based course work.

A recent student is Sue Doran, 37, who lives in rural Lincolnshire. She left school at 16 with, she says, "pitifully few qualifications". She worked as a secretary up to main board level but became frustrated that she could not command a higher salary.

While there are tutorial colleges which aim to get people through exams with a minimum of fuss, the use of the Internet is more novel.

"I decided to have a summer in the garden - my other passion apart from the Internet - then look into a change of career in the autumn," Mrs Doran said in an e-mail exchange with News online.

Through her use of the Internet she had come across business studies tutor Chris Sivewright. When she found she needed an A level to get a place at North Lincs college to study for a HNC qualification she got in touch with him.

[ image: Chris Sivewright, who is also an A level examiner for other boards]
Chris Sivewright, who is also an A level examiner for other boards
"I decided to do the A level seven weeks before the first exam on 2 June, but I actually only started studying four weeks before the exam," she wrote.

"Very soon after starting studying, Chris had me doing past exams at home as mocks. I would hand-write them under strictly timed conditions and then type and e-mail them to Chris.

"He would then e-mail me back to either ask me to ring him and we'd discuss or quite often we'd just "chat" about it on-line ... anything you type appears instantaneously on the other person's screen so it's like talking (only quieter!) and you can keep a record of the discussion for future reference which I found useful.

"The instant feedback was of enormous benefit as I could apply Chris's advice immediately and since time was so short, you can see the obvious advantages."

Proof of the pudding

Sue Doran will get her result in mid-August. She hopes to get a grade C. But pass or fail, this is not the sort of course that would suit every student.

Mrs Doran says she had some knowledge of economics, her husband runs his own business - fireproofing buildings - and she is not a fresh-faced youngster with limited knowledge of life in general.

"I can appreciate that 18-year-olds have to be told a lot of things that I just know," she said.

Rather than reading textbooks she learned a series of economic definitions, watched BBC TV business programmes and used the Web.

She says she is paying nothing for the tuition. This is because in part Chris Sivewright is trying to make a point. He has long been critical of standards in business studies A levels - criticisms rejected by examining boards.

In this case, the Associated Examining Board says it does not care what an examinee has done to prepare for the A level - that is not its job. But George Turnbull at the AEB says: "It's nonsense to suggest there's nothing more to doing a course than passing the exam. And it all depends on the background of the person involved."

Chris Sivewright also accepts this, and knows that schools have to educate - as opposed to simply tutoring for a specific exam - which necessarily involves a wider range of study and such things as school trips.

But he argues that the other side of the coin is that there are students who could do the course in, say, three months, who are put off when it is stretched out over two years. The suggestion of artificial "padding out" does not endear him to other teachers.

Mr Sivewright says the big advantage of Net teaching is that someone can sit a paper on an afternoon and have it back, marked and with comments, by midnight. He also believes the Web can offer more up-to-date and engaging reference material than any text book.

"I think we are about one step away from saying we don't need a teacher we need someone who can plug in the equipment and can point you in the direction of good Web sites to go to," he says.

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biz/ed at Bristol University

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