The emerging coronavirus epidemic (and possible pandemic) has thrown a significant question our way.

Could NZ schools effectively educate students quarantined at home for a significant amount of time? What if most students had to learn from home for a period of weeks?

These questions were raised recently in an educational forum I belong to. What surprised me was the number of people who thought it would be simple. We are already using Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams, right? Just throw in some video conferencing via Zoom or Google Hangouts and we are away.

Well, I am sorry to say; it isn’t as easy as that. In a blended environment, learners are with the teacher face to face for a significant amount of time. What happens when the teacher is no longer present? How do you keep learners engaged when they can do a multitude of other, often more interesting things? How many of our students are self-managing? How many adults could say that?

It isn’t as simple as just putting things for students to work through online. Too many think online or blended learning is about mapping out content for learners online. It isn’t. Not if you want to engage them, anyway. Such an approach totally misses the opportunity the internet provides us. Yes, we can provide flexibility by putting stuff online, and yes, we can provide a ‘personalised’ approach. But this means nothing without connections, relationships and people. It is the human factor that matters most in learning. The internet allows limitless connection – and yes, with that brings challenges, but the opportunities are far too compelling to allow that to stop us.

Designing learning online, with the learner, is a complex business that takes a unique skill set. Like face-to-face teaching, it takes years to master. Yes, it is learning and teaching whether face to face or online. However, the mechanisms to achieve engagement in a fully online environment are often quite different.

We have a fundamental weakness within our education system. We have not fully harnessing the opportunities the internet provides us to develop a ‘connected’ approach to learning which highlights the human factor in learning. We have yet to normalise an approach to online education that reflects the NZ curriculum and the distinct NZ flavour of learning. There is a significant amount of exciting innovation happening across many NZ schools. We live in exciting times. How can we harness that across schools at a system-wide level so innovative, ‘connected’ programmes, projects, communities are accessible to learners anywhere?

This is just one reason the government needs to act and place support and funding to enable a networked schools approach to learning at a national level. NetNZ schools have normalised fully online learning within their school at some level. It has become an embedded part of what many students and some teachers do. This means each of those schools is ready for any potential crisis that could disrupt the education of learners. However, this is far from a national situation. It needs to be and it won’t without government support. What we have is a grassroots movement that has developed over a 25-year period. It has achieved remarkable things in that time, largely through the hard work of those who have believed in it. Now is the time to take the next step….

By Darren Sudlow