Let’s face it – schools are primarily about kids and their learning. Sure, we need buildings, teachers, furniture, timetables and the like to support that, but the primary focus should be on them.
This is why I am personally very pleased to see the recent announcement from the Ministry of Education regarding the Education (Update) Amendment Bill. The current Act under which our education system operates places huge emphasis on the structures and governance of our schools, but less on the kids themselves – in fact learners and learning are barely mentioned. This would work well enough if all of our learners were uniform in terms of their learning needs and they were all happy to take whatever courses their local school can provide – but that’s no longer the case. The world has become an increasingly diverse place, creating increasingly diverse opportunities – and demands – for our young people. As a result, their expectations (and those of their parents and whānau) have changed – and many parts of our current education system are struggling to address this.
The proposed changes to the Education Act will provide greater flexibility for the system to respond to these expectations – now and into the future. As with any change it will be necessary to discuss and debate the detail in order to ensure there are no ‘unintended consequences’ – and I welcome that as part of a participatory democracy, as long as we can move beyond the ‘sound-bite’ journalism we are subjected to from the media and politicians.
One part of the proposed Amendment that appears to have drawn lots of attention already is the proposal to enable new partnerships between schools and online learning providers, and enable children and young people to access their education through online delivery. It is proposed that online learning providers will come from the schooling, tertiary education, and private sectors, and will be able to seek accreditation as a Community of Online Learning (COOL).
Much of the discussion has immediately focused on suspicions around the entry of private providers into the education system (as if that hasn’t happened for decades already). The debate around corporate support of Education is crucial to the continuation of a public education system that is free and available to all and I support that. But within the rigors of this debate let’s not confuse the issues. If the concern rests with corporate participation, then let the debate focus on that –but let’s not pour scorn on the opportunities that are being created for learners to have their learning needs meet in ways that may be more creative, more flexible and more relevant to their needs, culture and interests.
It’s good to see that the first COOL off the block will be Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) – formerly the Correspondence School. This institution has been operating since 1922, catering for the needs of students who don’t “fit” the conventional education system – some because of isolation, some because of circumstance, and a good many because the areas of study they wish to pursue aren’t available to them in their local school – and so they become ‘dual enrolled’. What’s perhaps not as well known is that until now, Te Kura has operated under it’s own section of the Act, especially crafted to suit the way Te Kura operates as the provisions of the Act that applies to all other schools don’t work for it – for instance, the requirements around attendance, opening hours, staff contact etc.
As someone who used to work at this institution, I am very pleased to see that they will now be able to operate with greater flexibility and in a more coherent way with their site-based counterparts, particularly as around 50% of their over 20,000 students are already based in these schools.
The fact is that for over 90 years, Te Kura has been serving the education needs of a segment of our population who would otherwise have been denied the opportunity within the structure of site-based schools – and to my knowledge, they have done this as successfully as any other school. Many of our business leaders, politicians and even Prime Ministers have benefited from an education that has included time enrolled with the Correspondence School.
Learning at a distance in this way has always been about a choice for some, and the only viable option for others – either way, the quality of provision has ensured success for those participating as learners.
The prospect of this ‘distance’ engagement moving into an online environment brings with it even more opportunity, as well as issues to be addressed (i.e. equity, access, support etc.), but is nonetheless a welcome move in my view. And it’s not new! Te Kura have been using online technologies to engage with their students for over a decade, and around New Zealand, teachers in many of our remote and rural schools have been using online technologies to create opportunities for their students to access subjects of their choice for almost two decades.
The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) evolved from its beginnings in the early 1990s when a group of Area Schools in Canterbury started collaborating to enable their students to be able to access subjects being taught be teachers in schools other than the one they were physically attending. (Back in the day I coordinated and helped write a handbook to guide the development of these LCOs – how the cycles continue!) Around the same time many of the Kura in New Zealand began doing something similar to ensure their students could access their subject choices in Te Reo under the KAWM project. The data around students learning in these networks suggests that they are just as capable of experiencing success as their classroom-based counterparts – perhaps even more so. (Read more in my paper with Michael Barbour)
What these schools have in common is that in the interests of serving the needs of their students they have had to struggle with and become creative about the way they operate within the limitations of the current Act. Being unable to recognize students being enrolled with more than one school, or requiring a teacher to be a staff member at a specific school while their expertise may be spread among many are a couple of examples – along with the whole financial side of things which means money allocated to a student can only go to one school with no easy way of sharing that when that student may be accessing her or his learning from one or more other places. The changes proposed in the Act will, hopefully, allow a more equitable and fair way for these schools and teachers to operate within.
The important thing about these examples is that they aren’t about a “one-size-fits-all” approach. No-one is suggesting that learners spend the whole day in front of a computer, devoid of any social connection. Educational research strongly supports the fact that the role of schools in supporting children’s social and emotional development is just as crucial as their cognitive development. I’d argue that by creating the opportunities for learners to access the subjects they want from while still attending their local school gives them the best of both worlds. There are several schools in the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) that are now thriving because they have been able to retain their learners in the local community where their social and emotional needs can be nurtured and cared for, while also ensuring their academic potential is realized by providing access to high quality instruction in subjects of their choosing using online technologies. This is not to mention also the opportunity created for many of these teachers to grow and develop professionally while remaining as teachers in these rural settings.
This isn’t something only for rural schools – the opportunities apply equally in urban settings. While I was working at the (then) Correspondence School our records showed only two secondary schools in New Zealand that didn’t have students enrolled for distance education – which suggests that even in our urban schools, the limitations created by factors timetables and staffing availability mean that even there students’ needs can’t be fully met under the current structure. A good example for me arose in Christchurch following the earthquakes there where one secondary school that was (and still is) re-located as a result of damage joined the VLN to ensure its students could have access to a broad curriculum. Their roll stabilized, their community remains intact and they remain a part of the VLN today.
I am pleased to see that due attention is to be given to the accreditation and regulation of any COOL providers – as should be the case, and is with our current schools. According to the information released this week, COOL will have to meet criteria relating to their capability and capacity to deliver education to students in an online environment and some COOL will be subject to additional terms and conditions, like which students they can enrol. All COOL will be subject to a robust quality assurance regime, including requirements to meet specified student outcomes.
This is both good and necessary because, as has been reported this week, alongside the very successful models, there are some rather awful examples of attempts to introduce online learning into schools – particularly some of the US online charter schools. This is where the voice of informed educational and community leaders needs to be heard, and involved in the process of accreditation. Staff in organisations such as Te Kura, the VLN Community and the Flexible Learning Association of NZ (FLANZ) are all part of an established body of education professionals within our country who have been doing this sort of thing for many years now – they should be consulted to ensure the policy and implementation models are informed by experience and research evidence.
So let’s keep the discussions going, and tease out where the opportunities are, and where the potential risks and downfalls are. But let’s also focus our attention on what this is all really about – our kids, their future and how we can work together to ensure we create a system that is fully supportive of addressing that.