I was fascinated to view a TV news item on TV1 this evening reporting on the launch of a report titled ‘Free to learn.'(PDF download), the product of an Inter-Party Working Group (IPWG) on School Choice , chaired by ACT MP, and Associate Minister of Education Heather Roy.
Free to learn claims to be “A report on policy options relating to the funding and regulation of schools that will increase parental choice and school autonomy in New Zealand.” Now that’s something that caught my attention – I’ve been arguing that for over a decade. Free to Learn recommends policies that:
- create an environment where new education providers will readily enter the compulsory education sector
- enable successful schools and organisations to expand and franchise to meet parental demand
- increase the opportunities and remove the impediments to the establishment of special character schools
- enable schools and providers to specialise
- permit schools to lease or licence their premises to alternative providers.
Now these are certainly ambitious goals, but they certainly aren’t new ideas. This sort of thinking was certainly radical in the days of Plato in The Republic, and possibly still considered radical in the 1970s when John Holt wrote “How children fail“. But I can hardly call the thinking in this report radical in 2010 – particularly when most of it is simply an update of what was begun in the previous century but failed to be acted on (at a systemic level). Further, it can hardly be labelled radical when the solutions that appear to be promoted (or at least interpreted) all reflect last century thinking.
Note these responses from the TV news report…
“Some kids find it difficult enough to get to one provider and have a stable day let alone moving around the city,”
“My main concern is that it’d require a massive bureaucracy to underpin it.”
“Quite clearly we’d need more money for buildings and facilities to cater for more students under this proposal,”
“I suppose it’s all right but it’s a lot more travelling for the kids between schools. I figure it would to easy to have them at the same school,”
Note the common theme? All of these responses (plus the responses from the teacher unions and several other educators reported on radio and other newspapers in the follow-up to this item) reflect an assumption that the solution lies in the making structural changes to the physical entities we currently call schools. The focus is on issues of location, presence, attendance, structures – all characteristics of our current schools system. That’s not radical – that’s yesterday’s thinking!
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking the report. In fact, I openly welcome the challenges that it invites the education community to engage with (yet again). It’s about time we had this sort of thinking on the reform agenda again. But please – let’s be truly radical about the thinking we bring to the solutions we explore.
The report – or at least the solutions that could be implemented as a result of engagement with it – might be considered (at least moderately) radical if we were to consider how things look in a quite a different dimension for the solution. I’m talking here about the world of virtual schooling – or at least a blend of virtual and physical schooling. Where students have a physical place to be for the important social development and learning, but where they can access their learning from a range of places and in a range of styles and modes in the virtual world. Thus they have the best of both worlds – and aren’t required to spend un-productive time travelling between venues, and we aren’t required to thinking about building new buildings and facilities to accommodate them.
And this isn’t really new thinking either! The Correspondence School (which I note had input into this report) has been serving NZ schools in this way for more than 50 of its 100+ years! When I worked there in the early part of this century just on a half of the 20,000 enrolments we had were students who were already in a face-to-face school but relying on the Correspondence School to access subjects not available to them where they were located. That’s 10, 000 students – the equivalent of our four largest secondary schools combined! (Incidentally, one of those students was my daughter who took Correspondence School Spanish through most of her secondary schooling and learned to speak and write the language sufficiently to survive six months in Central America in a volunteer programme where everyone around her spoke only Spanish.)
But that was correspondence ( a technology of the early 20th century). Now we have extensive use of online technologies, and in the background in NZ there has been a growing movement of schools that have been providing for the academic and curriculum needs of their students by exchanging courses in the ‘virtual world’. The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) has been operating for eight years now, and this year already has over 1500 students in remote and rural secondary schools on its roll.
This situation is set to gain momentum as the speed and reliability of our national network improves. The government is currently investing $1.5 billion dollars in rolling out high speed broadband around all of New Zealand, that includes the goal of reaching 93% of rural schools with fibre, enabling speeds of at least 100Mbps, with the remaining 7% to achieve speeds of at least 10Mbps. Initial research into the benefits to schools of having this level of connectivity showed promising results, including a case study of senior level music being taught successfully via video conference.
To be honest, my gut reaction when I read the policy backgrounder in the Free to Learn report was to think “at last, a set of policy recommendations that could lay the long needed policy framework required for the VLN to expand fully to become an integral part of our nation’s education system. Then I waited to read or hear reference to the VLN. Silence. Instead, the incessant droning of tired politicians and educators speaking about cars, buildings and bureaucracy.
Surely it’s time for some truly radical thinking. Something that is truly ‘out of the box’ and more likely to succeed. Something that builds on an already succeeding model that exists in our own back yard?
Several years ago, following a PPTA symposium on this topic, I wrote my own list of the things that needed to be on a policy agenda. I’m re-posting that list here in the hope that it might inspire some action this time.
Issues to be addressed before the use of distance/eLearning methodologies can become truly systemic in NZ include:
- How can student funding be shared between schools?
- How can staffing, including management units, be shared among schools
- What evidence needs to be gathered to demonstrate the worth of this?
- Connectivity and interoperability – who sets the standards?
- Networks – VPNs or MUSH etc
- Bridging – what is required? What technologies must be supported?
- Scheduling – enable direct access and school level control?
- assessment – developing consistency in approach
- reporting – enabling a unified student report from several ‘schools’ etc
- modularisation – a different view of ‘course’
- RPL – includes recognising the value of informal learning
- Creating more flexibility in recognising teacher roles: e-teachers, m-teachers, c-teachers,
- How to involve those with real subject expertise as mentors, hotseats etc
- “personalisation” – what does it mean? How do we make it happen?
- staff training – how to train a large group of the teaching force in these new approaches?
Leadership and coordination issues
- where does the leadership come from?
- What form should leadership take?
- What coordination is required nationally, locally etc?
Learning Resource issues
- How best to provide resources for learning to support teachers in this environment
- learning objects, repositories, search tools – who provides them, who manages them etc?
- how to cater for user-generated resources?
- Copyright and IP issues – how are these to be managed?
- What is best practice?
- What are quality indicators?