By Alison Campbell 04/09/2016

The National government is proposing a number of amendments to the NZ Education Act. One, which has already received quite a lot of press, sounds rather like a return to bulk funding under another name. But the latest one to hit the news is more like an untried social experiment with the potential for a lot of brown stuff to hit the fan.

And what is this proposal? They’ve certainly come up with a catchy title: COOLs – Communities of On-line Learning. The NZ Herald covered last month’s announcement by the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, with its reporter stating that

any registered school, tertiary provider such as a polytechnic or an approved body corporate be able to apply to be a “community of online learning” (COOL).

Any student of compulsory schooling age will be able to enrol in a COOL – and that provider will determine whether students will need to physically attend for all or some of the school day.

Sounds cool? Not really. I try hard to be a glass-half-full sort of person, but I can see too many fishhooks in this proposal to be in any way confident that it should be rolled out in this fashion.

Yes, I understand that there are some children for whom regular schooling really, really doesn’t work. But we already have a range of alternatives in place for this cohort. Where is the evidence that going on-line is a better option? We also have the Correspondence School, Te Kura – surely we should be looking at how it operates in the digital space and enhance that if needed, before going full open slather?

The Minister is reported as saying

This innovative way of delivering education offers a digital option to engage students, grow their digital fluency, and connect them even more to 21st century opportunities.

Yet digital options already exist in mainstream schooling & have been used very successfully to engage students, with notable successes – including for students at low-decile schools. So we should be encouraging & supporting teachers in all schools to investigate ways of doing these things, rather than setting up yet another layer of schooling – presumably also funded by the public purse – to ‘fix’ a perceived problem in an untried way. After all, a range of resources already exist – see here, here, & here, for example.

There are other reasons for caution. COOLs sound a lot like MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Communities), which offer many good things to their potential users but which also have an impressively high drop-out rate – on average 80-90% of those beginning a course, fail to finish it. And that figure includes data from very high-quality options, such as those available through Coursera. Student motivation probably plays a large role in this – it can be quite hard to maintain motivation when contact with tutors and classmates is solely digital. Before the Minister’s proposal is implemented, we need to be very sure indeed that any providers are able to maintain student engagement & motivation to succeed.


Will COOLs lead to empty classrooms?
Credit: Flickr / John.

Online learning vs face-to-face

There’s certainly mixed evidence that digital learning, alone, can contribute to learner success. For instance, this study found that on-line learners – especially those where there was also an element of face-to-face contact – did tend to do better, but pointed out that:

conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media per se.

Plus there’s evidence that on-line learning suits abstract thinkers more than those who need and use concrete examples in their learning:

Successful telecourse students also preferred to look for abstract concepts to help explain the concrete experiences associated with their learning. That is, they wanted to know ‘why’ certain things happened in conceptual or theoretical terms. This more abstract approach clearly favoured success … [while] those who needed concrete experience and were not able to think abstractly were more high-risk in a telecourse.

There is also a significant social element to successful learning for most students. In fact, learning is about far more than acquiring factual information; there are a wide range of social attributes and what are commonly called ‘soft skills’ that students also need to gain. Indeed, in the tertiary sector the emphasis is more and more on institutions being able to demonstrate that they are producing work-ready graduates with a range of competencies and capabilities, including communication and teamwork skills, and other social skills that are difficult to come by in a digital context.

And finally, it’s difficult these days for many families to cope financially unless both parents are employed. Which leads me to ask: if students are able to spend part or all of their day learning on line and at a distance from their education provider, just who is going to be supervising them?

I’m sorry, Minister, but we need – and our children and students deserve – to see the actual evidence that this proposal works before it’s put into action.


Featured image: Flickr / r. nial bradshaw