Opinion: COOLs - Opportunity or Obstruction?

It has been an interesting week since the government announcement on the Education Amendment Bill and the proposed Communities of Online Learning (COOLs). My initial excitement was tempered by the almost hysterical reaction from politicians, media and some educators. Twitter went wild with many seemingly predicting the end of public education as we know it, but unwilling to engage in any reasonable conversation on the matter. One conversation will remain etched in my memory for sometime, even if just because of the sheer bloody mindedness of the person at the other end. Needless to say I gave up on my Socratic line of questioning (weak as it was). Well, any form of conversation really. It seems some have already made their mind up on COOLs, and see little beyond what they interpret.

Anyway, there were two clear reactions to me. One was in response to opening up provision for online education beyond what we already have. For many, experience with the current government suggests a privatisation agenda. That this is a way to further develop partnership schools, open up the doors to private enterprise both here and overseas and to generally destroy public education as we know it. I certainly have no wish to see more privatisation within this country, but let’s be fair, it isn’t like it doesn’t already exist. Could this potentially open the door further? In short, yes, but it also opens up a number of other doors. One being the possibility for our public schools to have significant ownership of the virtual space in NZ. Let’s face it, globalisation will eventually bring overseas providers knocking on our door. We prevent that having any real effect by providing a robust network of online schooling that is national and state owned, and firmly based in our schools. If we do not engage with this initiative (assuming it gets through), we risk our current network disintegrating as other providers come in and do the job more effectively. Does this matter? Well yes it does if you believe in schools having ownership of virtual learning in this country. Our schools providing curriculum for each other has significant benefits over it being done for them by an external organisation.

  • It provides ownership of what is going on at both a learner and organisational level. Schools are able to influence programme development, strategic direction, learner support, etc.
  • It provides very important teacher development, for not only staff directly involved, but all staff throughout the school. The best of both worlds is a ‘blended’ approach, and to fully realise this potential you need to be working in the online space. Teaching online is a game changer. It really is a completely different way of doing things and provides an important foundation for rethinking teaching and learning.
  • It also provides significant challenges to traditional school systems and structures. Schools must keep in touch with technological development and the implications for the future of schooling. Otherwise they risk becoming obsolete. For example, how should we structure a school day when students have complete flexibility over when and where they ‘do’ learning? Just one of many questions schools needed to continue to consider. A system of virtual education that is integrated into everyday school life and a part of what schools do is vital for remaining relevant.
  • It reinforces schools as networks, rather than isolated silos and forces them to think about how they use and share resourcing. It connects the schools, but importantly, the teachers who work in each. A ‘connected’ schooling system is far stronger than the sum of its parts.

While I understand the fear of privatisation, I do not believe that is the motivation behind this. Yes, it could possibly be a small part of an agenda, but this is really fueled by a failing system which has been firmly entrenched for sometime. This cabinet paper clearly states the intent to ‘modernise’ our current system, and “...to encourage contestability through accrediting additional providers to deliver it. Such an approach will add to the diversity of provision.” This same intent was shared with us by Ministry Policy analysts who spent time with NetNZ earlier in the year and stated that there would be a “levelling of the playing field”. We just didn’t know when that would happen and in what form. Now we do.

In short this will be a contestable environment in which a number of different providers will act. Single schools could offer niche subjects online that they specialise in, tertiaries could offer hard to staff programmes directly into schools (such as Computing), we may get a partnership school in this space, existing communities of schools could act together (as long as they are a body corporate). What is important, is that there is a very strong network of schools who act in each other's best interests at a national level. Basically, a spine of online schooling that runs through the country. This will ensure our schools have plenty of control over this environment now and into the future. If they don’t, things could get interesting.

So those who keep parading the virtual learning networks around as an already existing, and working system need to be aware that what we all do is entirely funded by our schools and has been for a very long time. NetNZ gets no direct financial support from the Ministry of Education. We would not be acting in the best interests of our schools if we did not view this as an opportunity. An opportunity to potentially reduce the financial burden on our schools and receive external funding. An opportunity to provide a far broader and diverse curriculum that can potentially meet a wide range of learning needs. And an opportunity to receive funding to evolve, grow and innovate. We currently run so lean it is very difficult to do much more than just operate.

The second reaction was one that shocked me to be honest and was a bit of a wake up call in terms of my own awareness of where many teachers are at. While I understand that the media won’t have much of a handle on what effective online learning would look like, I was surprised with how many educators saw online learning as a negative thing. Their vision of online learning was one in which pasty young kids are sitting in their bedroom all day interacting with content through a computer. There would be no teacher. They are replaced by algorithms, software, and online quizzes. That this is our understanding of what online learning might be is quite frightening, and it is rather ironic that these views were being shared through an online social network that enabled them to connect with a wide variety of people. Really?! You are able to use the internet in such a powerful way, yet you think online learning will be the opposite? Yes, it could be that way, but it isn’t. Not in this country. I now prefer to think of it as ‘connected’ learning. This is what the internet provides. It gives us the opportunity to connect far beyond our own four walls. We can connect with content, and with ideas, but most importantly, with people. We form strong online communities of learning in which learners connect and interact with each other, with experts anywhere in the world, with a multitude of ideas and thoughts. And we can provide face to face type opportunities through synchronous video conferencing (and I haven't even mentioned what virtual reality could bring).

And let’s be clear. This does not replace face to face. I love Keri Facer’s book, Learning Futures in which she outlines the importance of community in an ever changing world. People, and human contact will remain an extremely important part of who we are. No one wants to change this. These philosophies have become a very important part of my own view on technology and change. Technology can isolate, but so can a book. The reality is that used in the right way it opens up the world. Little Johnny living and growing up in Twizel, need not be limited by his physical surroundings. And that to me is what technology provides us. We can see the negatives, but they tend to be very much a human, rather than a technological failing.

So in the end, yes, the Education Amendment Bill is an opportunity. One in which we will tread with some care, but we need to engage and shape as much as we can, rather than obstruct. And finally, fully online learning has been brought to the forefront of New Zealand education. About time.