The question of sustainability has been one that has vexed all elearning clusters and the VLN community for sometime now. Ever since the Ministry of Education stopped the funding designed to build clusters to a sustainable position, uncertainty has been ever present. The reality is funding the leadership of these clusters themselves is an expensive business for most of our schools. Some clusters have accepted this and got in with it. Others have cut positions and have usually cut activity significantly as a result. In Cantatech and AorakiNet’s case we amalgamated and formed one regional cluster that covers the greater rural Canterbury region – CantaNet. This helped reduce costs for schools (and unfortunately cut one position down to part-time), but has yet to really improve anything else. It has been enabled us to survive, but not to mature and develop.

And the question of sustainability still looms large. One school left last year and this created immediate financial pressure for the rest. The reality is that the funding from schools does not cover our expenses and reserves are steadily disappearing. We could cut positions or salaries, but the work in the cluster would suffer as a result. We can’t expect funding from the government in the current climate of cost cutting so what is the answer?
Perhaps we need to think outside the box a bit. To change up what we do and to take it to place that has the potential to not only sustain, but to grow what we do significantly. Even if we are able to survive with what we have, it is going to be very difficult to significantly improve what we are doing using the current cluster model – it has its benefits, but it isn’t financially viable in the long term. It has also created a fragmented approach to the provision of online learning that is providing major challenges to school, teachers and most importantly, learners.

A few years ago I remember chairing the VLN sustainability working group and taking part in ongoing discussions on solutions to this whole issue. The idea of commodifying enrolments and regionalising clusters were both discussed and presented to the VLN. One working group member (that’s you Conor) in particular did a lot of work on this, but what was the result? Well basically the clusters couldn’t agree or commit to a solution. Discussion just went around in circles.

Earlier this year the ePrincipal for OtagoNet, Ken Pullar approached Trevor and I with an idea that has its genesis in this previous work (and must be acknowledged that Ken has had a key role in driving this since that point). Why not form a new organisation together and invite anyone interested to join as well? Why not commodify enrolments? And why not develop this as a commercial enterprise owned by schools (originally mooted as a public private partnership)? One of the key aspects of such an organisation is that it would be self-funding. How would we do this? Grow the size of our courses, which currently average ten a class and market places to schools outside of the organisation. In the context on all the discussion on class sizes it might seem a bad idea to increase the size of a class, but in an online course larger numbers (obviously not too large though – 20-25 works well) actually helps learning. This is because developing community is integral to online learning and when developing community – the more the merrier. It requires a pedagogical shift that places more emphasis on the learner taking responsibility, but that is what we are trying to do these days anyway isn’t it (check NZ curriculum)?

While I didn’t see the commercial aspect coming the rest made perfect sense. From there we have worked together to develop an initial proposal to our schools, consulted with them on an ongoing basis, consulted with a wide range of other parties including Ministry personnel, N4L personnel (a number of times), politicians, business people, lawyers, accountants, and various other experts in one area or another. No stone has been left unturned.
One exciting development for me personally has been the move away from the original idea of a public private partnership to a co-operative company. To me the latter is often about sustaining local community which is also integral to what we do. I feel far more comfortable with it than a public private partnership.

We recently completed a statement of intent that outlines our proposal in some depth (you can view this here). Our principals read this and met face to face to discuss at the end of term two. There was some robust discussion, but there was a very positive feeling and it was agreed that all would take it to their BOTs to discuss and approve (or not). From the feedback so far this is looking very positive.
All going well I look forward to being involved in a bold move forward in the provision of online learning in NZ. It has been fantastic working in a team so far and that is a significant move forward in my opinion. NetNZ will be able to develop a leadership structure that is flat, team based and distributed across our schools. An important move away from the ePrincipal model which in my opinion, is fundamentally flawed. What organisation relies on one person (and maybe a bit of another) to do everything?