Virtual learning in NZ schools

Image credit: Rachel Whalley

“New Zealand’s future becomes more and more a race between education and economic stagnation and social dislocation… The need to build a learning culture is seen as critical to our success as a nation – the question is, how to do this within the resources available and in a way appropriate to New Zealand’s own cultural values.” –

(Consultel report Exec Summary, page 8)

Education has long been one of the ‘big three’ in terms of government spend, regarded as an investment in the future of our society, emphasising sustainable growth and economic prosperity,  as well as providing citizens with the capability to think, create and be critical, and imagine a better future for all. In the past (almost) three decades there has been a succession of initiatives, involving large numbers of New Zealanders, seeking to find solutions to the complex mix of challenges that confront us in the face of technological change, global competition and uncertainty. These include:

  • 1992Education For Enterprise – a one day conference convened by the then Prime Minister Jim Bolger to explore how telecommunications technologies might be put to better use for the development of interactive learning systems in a wide variety of educational and training systems.
  • 2001 Knowledge Wave – Co-chaired by then Prime Minister, Helen Clarke and described as a three-day “group think” to create strategies and action plans that would drive New Zealand’s economic transformation. Focused on five themes: innovation and creativity; people and capability; sustainable economic strategies; entrepreneurship; and social cohesion and the knowledge divide.
  • 2014Ministerial inquiry into 21st Century learning – Convened by then associate Minister of Education, Nikki Kaye, the purpose of this inquiry was to investigate and provide recommendations on the best structures, tools, and communities, in both rural and urban New Zealand, that could better enable students and educators to attain the knowledge and skills, such as digital literacy, that the 21st century demands.
  • 2018Education Conversations – initiated by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins to focus on the changes needed to make to governance, management and administration in education to ensure the fitness of the school system to meet the challenges we face, and to achieve equity and excellence.

Common themes repeated across all of these initiatives include:

  • How to build and sustain an education system that will ensure New Zealand’s ability to remain competitive in a rapidly changing and uncertain future
  • How to leverage the power of technologies (current and future) to achieve this
  • How to ensure that all learners are able to have their needs met and are able to participate in these new opportunities.

Comprehensive reports were written after each of these gatherings, complete with recommendations and ideas for action. Inevitably, the realities of funding availability, competing political ideologies and the risk aversion within the education system combined with the fact that much of this change requires a longer horizon than the current three-year political life-cycle allows, few of the recommendations in these reports have been embraced and implemented in a way that leads to the long-term, sustainable and high impact outcomes that were envisaged.

This, then, is the political milieu within which the Virtual Learning Network has emerged and managed to survive over the past 25 years, providing access to educational opportunities for thousands of young people in our schools, providing career satisfaction for many teachers and ensuring the sustainability of schools in rural and remote parts of the country.

The use of online technologies has enabled new forms of educational provision across a range of networks in New Zealand that have directly benefitted learners, their schools and communities for for more than 25 years. While the VLN’s history is founded on providing levels of access for learners in rural and remote parts of the country, the potential of this networked approach to educational provision needn’t be considered exclusively in those contexts.

As someone who has been involved since the very beginning of the VLN, I’ve recently written a paper titled “The Virtual Learning Network in New Zealand: History and Future Thoughts” that I have uploaded into the resources section on my FutureMakers website. The paper outlines the background and history of the VLN in the New Zealand education landscape, and makes the following points:

  1. The importance and potential of open, flexible and distance education has been recognised by successive governments as a crucial part of New Zealand’s future for more than three decades.
  2. A succession of reports has identified that achieving the ideal ‘future state’ involves an ‘end-to-end’ view of the system-level requirements for support and investment.
  3. While progress has been made at a national level in some areas (i.e. the physical infrastructure), the progress towards a fully integrated, connected, sustainable has been characterised more by a succession of ‘ad-hoc’ and/or ‘short-term’ initiatives that work outside or on the fringes of the current legislative and policy frameworks.
  4. The Virtual Learning Network, as one of these initiatives, has managed to be sustained for 25 years through the efforts of principals and teachers ‘on the ground’, and with occasional support from the Ministry of Education.
  5. The potential of online learning and initiatives such as the VLN to provide a vehicle for addressing some of the current strategic issues within our education system (e.g. teacher supply, initial teacher education, professional development and support, specialist subject expertise sharing etc.) has again become a focus of the current government and Minister of Education.
  6. In seeking to bring initiatives such as the VLN into the ‘mainstream’ of our system it is important that we learn from the history of what has occurred, then take a future-focused view of what needs to be put into place to enable the sort of system re-design and activity that is reflected in the future state view. (i.e. we mustn’t fall into the trap of simply designing a policy approach intended to ‘remediate’ the shortcomings of the current approaches).
  7. The potential for incorporating open, flexible and distance learning approaches across all of our system will usher in a completely new paradigm of educational opportunities for all New Zealanders, across all of life. We need to ensure that our future vision takes account of this, and that our policy design and legislative frameworks support this future.

I finish the paper with some thoughts on where things might go into the future as we consider the ways in which online learning might become a more integral part of our education system, rather than simply an afterthought or the thing we resort to when all else fails.

You can access the paper here – I’d welcome some discussion on these ideas and the opportunities that bringing online/distance/flexible education approaches into the mainstream of our education system might bring.

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