What’s radical about this proposal??

So… our politicians have come up with yet another proposal to address perceived issues in our education system – and a radical one at that!!!

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:
Policy issues

  • 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?

Technology issues

  • 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?

Curriculum issues

  • 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

Staffing issues

  • 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

Pedagogical issues

  • “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?

Quality issues

  • What is best practice?
  • What are quality indicators?

13 thoughts on “What’s radical about this proposal??

  1. Derek this all sounds really positive for the top 5%students who are high achieving and, like your Spanish learning daughter, will cope well with learning in virtual/asynchronous/video linked/online etc environments. Do you think that the bottom 20% (the long tail of failure) who are typically disengaged from learning are going to succeed? If the answer is yes subject to sufficient resources being in place to support them then would they meet the same success in the current model of schooling with that level of resource being provided to support them? I understand the huge advantages to sharing Spanish teaching (for example) across schools so that children in one school who may not have access to a subject specialisation they are interested in can have that access. Sharing expert teaching could be incredibly powerful. I can imagine an inspiring science teacher being able to communicate via video link and capture the imaginations of a group of geographically diverse learners. But do you really think that the typically disengaged bottom 20% will learn to read virtually? If anyone has examples of this happening successfully I know you will.

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  2. thanks for this Paul – I guess a problem we face in these sorts of discussions is falling into the trap of putting “all our eggs in one basket”. I’d certainly not promote any one solution at THE way to meet the needs of our students – the form of our schooling in the future will most certainly be a blend of a variety of modes of provision. It is true that, in traditional modes of distance education that require lots of reading it is the higher ability students that achieve most success. But there are a range of other factors as well – such as the level of support that is available immediately to the student, typically from a parent or caregiver in the case of the correspondence school student, or a ‘mentor’ teacher in the case of those students in the VLN clusters. eight years of work in the VLN clusters (16 if you go back to the early days of CANTAtech) have demonstrated that students of all abilities can achieve if provided with the right level of support. Another key factor of course is motivation. We have tens of thousands of students in our schools currently who are bored because they can’t access the subjects they want to do, and are forced to make up their programmes with subjects that are not their first choice. This alone is a significant cause of disengagement and under-achievement for many. Regarding the issue of the bottom 20% – the solution I’m promoting (and, for that matter, the policy recommendations in the report) isn’t necessarily the magic bullet here – but I wouldn’t assume that just because reading might be a problem that those in the under-achieving ‘tail’ can’t benefit from this sort of provision. At the Correspondence School in the time I was there, 30% of the roll (approx 6,000 students) were involved in the special needs programmes or were students who had dis-engaged from school for a variety of reasons (including being excluded). The programmes provided for these students were highly personalised, involved the provision of a lot of extra support, and had mixed degrees of success – but the point is that through these programmes those students experienced a much greater level of success than they otherwise would have. Other examples of programmes that have addressed the needs of students who may be represented in this ‘tail’ include the KAWM project linking Kura Kopapa and the Maori Boarding schools around NZ and the highly successful Tolaga Bay Area School online project from 2002. We need to think broadly about how the needs of learners can be provided for and find the blend of provisional modes that best suit their needs. The key point I am making in my post is that, in relation to the policy recommendations in the report, we already have a model of education provision that is well established, and working effectively in our country, and does not require new buildings or the generation of lots more carbon and time lost in class through travel.

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  3. Hi Derek
    I think you joined our Collective VLN Groan as we watched TVNZ discuss this with two Auckland Schools & their parents and the ongoing discussion with an Auckland academic. Some people just don’t get it, can’t see the possibilities and even worse don’t know what is happening now in our own Educational Landscape with the VLN already going some way to providing more choice and personalised learning opportunities for students all over the country. On reading the report “Step Change:Success the Only Option” I noticed so many parallels to what we already do: Four underlying Principles of Choice, Flexibility, Quality & Accountability (Great). And an eight step implementation plan that goes through a process of identify students needs, finding the right provider, making a personal learning plan, with the option of engaging a “learning broker mentor” to help in the process. Sound very similar to the VLN but very different in that it proposed a competitive, market model as opposed to our collaborative model. The implementation plan goes on to discuss the payment of fees & performance payment for successful student achievement. Heather Roy on Breakfast TV discusses bringing in new providers, a creation of whole new educational market to cater for this proposal.They need to stop and take a look at what we already have and how we can utilize our resources between schools more effectively before they begin to consider new providers. The market driven aspect of this report i find scary but I like the idea that educational policy can be changed to allow schools to work more flexibly together as discussed at the PPTA/VLN meeting you mention above. At this point the report is still a discussion document so now is the time to get discussion going amongst our communities and back to the government so they can really open their eyes to the possibilities.

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    1. While I understand the “groan” you allude to, I’m not sure I’m quite so pessimistic. I am certainly dismayed by the collective ignorance displayed in the responses to the paper, but we need to understand that this is a set of policy recommendations. That has to be a positive thing, as, in my opinion, the major area of need in regards to the VLN are some significant changes in the current policy frameworks. While there is a need for more discussion about the detail of some of the policy recommendations that are made, it’s difficult to disagree with the overall intent of the recommendations which, on the face of them, would totally support what the VLN is all about.
      I completely agree with your final point – this report must become a rallying point for those of us who have been involved in, and are committed to the idea of virtual learning. We must act discerningly and with wisdom to ensure that our points of view are appropriately represented to the various areas of government who will now be considering these recommendations.

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    1. Hi Sarah
      I believe open education resources will play a vital and significant part in the emerging paradigm. Lots of opportunity here for the development of a pool of user-created resources in a scale that the traditional publishing model could never hope to provide.

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  4. Yes as Rachel has suggested – this got a strong response from the VLN community. The biggest problem I have with it (apart from the complete ignorance of the VLN and virtual learning fullstop) is that it is a comptetitive model. We are finally starting to get teachers and schools collaborating so lets not mess it all up now. Mind you it is only a report, not policy.

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    1. Hi Darren – good to see this has evoked a strong response from the community most qualified to contribute sensibly to this discussion 🙂 Not sure that I agree with you about the perception of a competitive model. The recommendations in the report open the way for more providers to participate – which, in my view, can only be a good thing. The VLN has has aspects of this occurring for a number of years – including the contributions of the Polytechs, the independently offered “learn-now” programme and, at one point, a semi-retired person offering maths coaching. I don’t see this being a threat to teachers and schools collaborating – in fact, my overwhelming perception of the intent of the policy recommendations is that they’d provide much greater support for the intent of the VLN.
      Final comment – the paper isn’t actually a report or policy, it’s really a piece of policy analysis containing policy recommendations. As such, it is even more important that the VLN community engage critically with it and provide a “voice” in the discussions.

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  5. Hi Derek

    Regarding the issues you raise around virtual learning. I think some of them have or are being addressed. Perhaps not in a systemic or organised manner, but being addressed none the less. As to value drivers, I think it will always come down to student success, i.e. successfully meeting the needs of the student. As to how we set an actual value to this??? That is a different task which is open to a lot of subjectivity. Therefore I think quality is key – quality resources, quality teaching practice, quality systems. We are beginning to address these issues within the VLN, in a haphazard, but increasingly more organised, manner. In the beginning it was about how we made the technology work, but with a bit of maturity and experience we are now asking how do we ensure that what we do results in good learning, i.e. focusing on quality. eTeachers are now very much under the spot light because parents want to know that their child will do as well in a virtual class as in a F2F class. We need to deliver – more than ever before our performance will be scrutinised because people mistrust what they do not understand. Hence the work around learning design is so important and teachers’ conscious awareness of the application of pedagogical theory equally important. Stephen Heppel’s comment on one of the Youtube videos is so appropriate in this case – “It is the death of education and the dawn of learning”. So this is an opportunity to put our ideas across, an opportunity to show how a NEN will actually provide the infrastructure for the likes of the VLN to do its work.

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  6. Hi Conor – totally agree with you re quality. Sadly, it’s the area of most variability in the whole of our education system – both face to face and virtual. I acknowledge that through the efforts of good people such as yourself there have been significant developments that lead the way in terms of what is possible. I remain convince, however, that no matter how good, or how organised the efforts at a local level are, we’ll never realise the HUGE opportunity that now exists until we see a concerted effort at the highest level to address the policy issues that are now presenting the biggest barrier to seeing this become mainstream. We have to remember that these policies were developed to support a system that was conceived of in the last century. It’s about time we had policies developed to support a 21st century learning approach.

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  7. Hi Derek

    I agree with your sentiments 100% regarding the need for policy change, but how do we show value, which will drive the change? I think that change will only occur if government/policy makers/principals/parents see value in making a change, and I think the first question they will ask, or should ask, is how will this impact on student learning? Then they will look for quantitative evidence of student learning success, which will take them straight to the NCEA results. We have data that shows that students doing VLN classes, in general, do as well in these classes as they do in there face to face classes. The next question or comment will be “why spend all this extra money on technology when we only get the same level of achievement – where is the return on investment”. While I acknowledge that this view is myopic and narrow, it is ultimately the lay persons’,and dare I say many principals, measure of educational effectiveness and achievement. This is what concerns me when trying to get the sort of change we need.

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