How ready is NZ for online education?

As schools move their teaching online, we must be cautious of the risk of amplifying our shameful record of inequalities across the education system, writes Associate Professor Louise Starkey for Newsroom.

When schools begin teaching again it will be through a distance mode.

New Zealand has a long history of distance education, with The Correspondence School (now known as Te Kura) being established in 1922. Children and young people have been taught the New Zealand Curriculum through a range of media.

This includes being sent learning activities through the mail, lessons broadcast through the radio and television, videoconferencing in the 1990s and online programmes since the 2000s. While not all teachers and students have experienced teaching and learning at a distance from the physical classroom, the education system is well-placed for the transition.

New Zealand teachers are relatively autonomous in their teaching decisions. For many years they have been expected to adapt their teaching and the curriculum to meet the learning needs of the students they teach. This differs to other countries where teachers are told what to teach and how. This experience in teaching flexibly has gained recognition internationally, as it prepares young people well for the future, and will help teachers adapt to online or distance ways of teaching.

New Zealand students are encouraged to develop autonomy in their learning. In the curriculum this is called self-management. They should be experienced in setting goals and taking responsibility for engaging in learning activities. This means they know they can be learning even though a teacher is not in the same room as them.

However, New Zealand has one of the most inequitable educations systems in the OECD and this could be amplified with the move to distance learning. Some children live in homes with access to devices and unlimited broadband, others do not. Some children are in bubbles with parents who can solve simultaneous equations and programme a robot, or who speak multiple languages, other bubbles may lack people with strong literacy skills. Each bubble will have a mixture of skills and experience, some that align with academic learning and some that do not. A child in a bubble without support to learn the curriculum would be disadvantaged.

To mitigate inequities of access, the Ministry of Education has been exploring how to get learning materials for students without adequate internet or digital devices. It began trialling schemes to provide data and devices to students in low socio-economic areas last year. On Wednesday 8 April, the Minister of Education announced that the Government would enable access to learning by increasing the number of students who have access to the internet and devices, providing hard copy materials, and funding two television channels broadcasting lessons. However, not all students will be online and this can create difficulties in accessing support from the teacher and it will make the teacher’s role more difficult if they have students learning through different mediums.

Teachers can mitigate some inequities of home support for curriculum learning through learning activities children can do without adults in a bubble having to teach the curriculum. This does not mean teachers need to be in a virtual room throughout a school day replicating what might happen at school, rather they can organise and communicate key learning activities and be available to support at times that work for them and their students. Children and young people with guidance from their teacher can self-manage their learning at home.

To support teachers are a range of online resources teachers can adapt and use for their students. These are commercially developed and shared through teacher networks or organisations such as Te Kura. However, there are few resources for Māori medium schools, as the majority of online resources are in English. This is an inequity for teachers working in kura and wharekura, who have to develop appropriate learning activities. One of the funded television channels will be in te reo Māori, which will provide some resources, but it is unlikely to cover all curriculum areas at all levels.

Parents can support their children to self-manage. Help them set goals for learning, monitor their progress and celebrate achievements. Learning in a bubble is not just about schoolwork. Parents can also support their children to set a weekly goal for something they want to learn within their bubble, such as how to cook pancakes, change a tyre, write and perform a waiata, master the next level of that online game, or programme a robot.

The New Zealand education system has a history of being innovative and adaptable in distance education. The system has the basis for successful bubble-based learning that will be different to classroom learning. Teachers have the professional adaptive capability to make this work and students have been encouraged to be autonomous learners. With increased access to devices and the internet for students and support within bubbles, learning will continue, but we must be cautious of the risk of amplifying our shameful record of inequalities across the education system.