What are the opportunities and barriers to enabling any state school to provide distance education, if they have the infrastructure to do so?
Technology, and in particular the internet, has had an undeniable impact on all aspects of society – Professor Manuel Castells, conceptualises this change as the rise of a ‘Network Society’ with the internet being the decisive technology in this change – “with the explosion of wireless communication in the early twenty-first century, we can say that humankind is now almost entirely connected”. We have an opportunity to continue to ‘modernise’ our education system and fully realise the potential that technology, and in particular, the internet, affords us. The ‘connected’ world Castell’s presents can be realised in New Zealand education by ensuring the learning opportunities provided to our learners are not constrained by time or place. Our current educational environment encourages schools to act as silos in a competitive, market-driven environment. This is the very antithesis of the vision of the world that Castell’s presents. Enabling networks of schools to provide online education, will be a significant step forward in ensuring our schools reflect the world around them.
Enabling individual schools to become a provider of fully or complementary online education may provide some benefit to that school, and to learners, but also carries the potential risk of encouraging schools to compete for enrolments in a search for extra revenue. This would be an undesirable outcome if we want to build a more equitable, collaborative system of education. Schools as networks acting as providers of online education for the common good will build system-wide resilience to change and strengthen public schooling across New Zealand.
We see a number of opportunities this model will provide at a national, local and individual level.
It will create breadth, coherence and flexibility in the curriculum available to learners. Schools work together to ensure online education complements, rather than replaces what is available within each school. School structures create far fewer barriers and introduces a measure of flexibility that would not otherwise be available. When curriculum planning and development is viewed across schools, decisions can be made that ensure effective and efficient use of the resourcing and staffing across the network of schools. Schools are then able to rationalise and still retain breadth of curriculum. As a result, schools, learners and teachers will have far greater certainty over the curriculum that is available.
This will alleviate the pressure on resourcing specialist areas within schools and aids in the retention of subject specialists, because participating teachers are able to teach their specialist area. The Ministry will be able to work with networks to develop a national pool of freelance specialists who can be used online on a needs basis. We have documented this and other suggestions on teacher supply in a proposal that went to the Ministry of Education at the end of 2017.
The embedded nature of online learning that occurs across schools provides significant challenges to traditional school systems and structures. It will encourage schools to ensure they keep in touch with technological developments and the implications for the future of schooling. For example, how do we structure the school day when students have complete flexibility over how, when and where they ‘do’ learning? The nature of how we approach learning will be challenged and this will have a flow-on benefit through the impact online learning has on the practice of participating teachers. The best of both worlds is a ‘blended’ approach, and this can only be fully realised by working in the online space. Learning and teaching online provides an important foundation for rethinking how we ‘do’ education.
Online learning will become ‘normalised’ and a natural part of a school, community and learner’s everyday life. This is, in turn, means learners participate in an online world that complements, rather than replaces their face-to-face environment. Fully online learning immerses learners in a managed online environment where they learn valuable lessons in how to act and behave as responsible digital citizens. Their school life mirrors the modern world and places them in a ‘connected’ environment that opens up their world beyond the local.
Schools as networks reinforces the community- based nature of the New Zealand educational system. It gives strong ownership at a learner, teacher and organisational level and ensures all members are able to influence programme development, strategic direction, learner support, and other key aspects of the network.
Teachers learn in a community of practice that runs across schools. Capacity is built as a collective and each teacher benefits through contact with a wide variety of other teachers.
There is also an opportunity to explore how networks of schools fit into a much the broader picture of education. We support the government’s intention to consult widely and to engage the educational community in an ongoing discussion on the future of education. We also acknowledge that networks of schools should not be the only model of online education in this country. There is room for multiple organisations and models to work in a complementary and collaborative fashion to ensure the varied needs of all learners are met.
There are a number of barriers to enabling schools as providers of online education.
Some schools and learners view distance education as second-best to traditional face-to-face education. Based on our experience, with the right support, online education can be made to work effectively for almost all learners. The provision of online education that is of high quality will contribute toward shifting attitudinal barriers to distance education.
Our experience is that a network of schools, not individual schools, are best placed to act as a provider of online education. NetNZ and the VLN Clusters have shown that acting individually, few schools are willing to be online education providers. This is because the organisational costs and risk of resource underutilization (i.e. the school’s online course has too few enrolments to be viable) are too high. Instead, school’s prefer to share these risks across a network of schools that also provides efficiencies of scale with regards to leadership, management and systems. We support school networks that provide online education being formally recognised within New Zealand’s education system. This will enable further development for the networks to take place, as well as providing the sector with reassurance about systems and protocols. Formally recognised network entities could be responsible for the leadership and management of the network provision, including: managing relationships with schools and other organisations, enrolment and reporting systems, ensuring the needs of learners are met, employing teachers that are required for network provision, professional learning and development and quality assurance.
By Darren Sudlow