Communities of Online Learning - it's the new COOL.

Overview

As part of the Education (Update) Amendment Bill that was introduced to parliament last week, we were introduced to the concept of Communities of Online Learning, or COOLs. This gives option for students to enroll in online learning providers as a first choice or supplement to the school they are in.

The Bill proposes to enable new partnerships between schools and online learning providers, and enable children and young people to access their education through online delivery. Online learning providers will come from the schooling, tertiary education, and private sectors, and will be able to seek accreditation as a Community of Online Learning (COOL). (Ministry of Education)

Education Minister Hekia Parata talks about COOLs in the video below:

The MOE has signaled that students will be able to enroll in a COOL instead of attending a traditional school. However, not all COOLs will be able to enroll students but will be able to provide supplementary support/tuition to schools.

Why embrace it?

Online learning in New Zealand is not new. For example, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu — The Correspondence School (Te Kura) has been involved in online learning for some time. I was been privileged to have been a part of supporting this during my time there. I have seen students have real success through online learning and engagement can be very high.

Other examples are:

The Virtual Learning Network Primary School (VLNP) is a collaborative community of schools throughout New Zealand working together to provide improved educational opportunities for students through online learning. The community aims to meet the needs of students in the primary schooling sector from Years 1 to 8 and is inclusive of all Primary, Kura, Intermediate and Area Schools.1

NetNZ is a community of secondary and area schools from the Otago, Canterbury, Southland, and West Coast regions who work together to provide online learning opportunities for their students based on the New Zealand Curriculum. In 2016 membership is likely consist of around 65 schools across the South Island.2

Blended and online learning is common across many schools in New Zealand to varying degrees, and of course amongst the tertiary institutions.

COOLs will give choice to students and families. Not every student thrives at school. Just like not every student will thrive online. There are pros and cons for each learning environment and these will potentially be different for each student. The Minister makes it clear in the video above that COOLs are not for everyone. But they will work for some. I've seen online learning work very successfully for some students. I've seen it work better for some students than traditional schooling ever did. Students who would never have contributed anything in a face-to-face classroom situation can seem to suddenly find a voice and a place online. They may not be social in a face-to-face situation, but are able to interact successfully with other students as well as adults online.

We often hear about how one size doesn't fit all when it comes to education. Then surely that would include the mode of learning! Not everyone thrives in the bricks and mortar school model!

Online learning can also offer new opportunities to our students. New ways to connect with experts around the globe. Yes, you can do this in school too, and this is happening already. But this could also take us away from the traditional 9 am to 3 pm school day model that we also have. I have heard often that teenagers, for example, need more sleep and would do better starting school later in the day. The asynchronous nature of learning online allows for learning to occur at any time of the day or night!

Important considerations

A couple of things spring to mind when I think about what providers of COOLs (especially those that will enroll students full time) need to consider.

  1. Pastoral care. This is very different when learning at a distance. Good communication between teachers and students is crucial to ensure engagement. It can be easy for students to be overlooked when you don't have regular face-to-face contact with them. Regular phone or Skype calls can help solve this problem and ensure that student needs are met.

  2. Physical activity. This is a big concern to a lot of parents and teachers. The idea that it's not good to be sitting down all day in front of a screen. COOLs will need to build in to their curriculum opportunities for physical activities. The fact the physical education is a part of the NZ Curriculum should help this.

There is also no reason to think that everything has to be done with or on a computer/device. There are many possibilities for students to take their learning away from the computer - eg. cooking, science experiments, horticulture, getting outside, etc. We must not narrow our thinking by deciding that online learning is only ever in front of a device or inside!

Final thoughts

I'm excited by this announcement. It is giving greater choice to students and more flexibility around their learning. It enables students who don't have access to certain subjects to access them more easily. It's not new to New Zealand, but will bring more opportunities. Let's embrace this new opportunity and think about how our students might be able to benefit from it, and how our schools can be involved.

You might be interested to read the article written based on my MEd research: Student and teacher perceptions of online student engagement in an online middle school.