Year 7 and 8 students at Halfmoon Bay School on Stewart Island aren’t as isolated as you might think. Thanks to the Rural & Remote Schools Project, established by their principal Kath Johnson, the students make use of digital technology to collaborate with other students from remote areas all around New Zealand. The highlight is the chance to meet face-to-face at a camp in Wellington every other year.

Meanwhile, with the help of video collaboration, Northcote College teacher Tony Zaloum delivers Level 3 physics to a group of Kaitaia College students who would otherwise miss out.

At the same time, a Samoan teacher is able to ‘meet’ with his students from Ashburton, Selwyn College, Wellington High School and Roxburgh Area School at the same time.

VLN needs resourcing

These are all examples of how the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) is transforming learning for students all over New Zealand. Thanks to the VLN, students don’t need to miss out on a particular subject because of where they live.

The VLN promotes online learning in school clusters, which is essentially what the new communities of online learning (CoOLs) are all about. But, if this is the case, why has there been so much backlash about the CoOLs, which look set to take shape following the update of the Education Act?

It seems that while the proposed legislation around the CoOLs has the potential to cement the good stuff that’s happening in the VLN, there are also fears that the CoOLs could open the door to providers who might not apply the same focus on the curriculum or student-centred approach. Part of the VLN’s success is down to how it supplements the existing school system. Schools work in partnership with the eTeachers and VLN staff to support students in their ‘home’ schools. The concern is that the introduction of CoOLs might see a move away from this school partnership model.

It was this combination of hope and fear that prompted VLN Primary School ePrincipal Rachel Whalley’s mixed reaction when she first heard the news about CoOLs.

“I said ‘Yay’ when it was first announced – and then I actually cried,” says Whalley.

The ‘Yay’ is easy to explain. The VLN has been pushing for a sustainable resource for a long time and CoOLs could provide the answer to this. The VLN has sat outside the school system for nearly two decades and has been living hand to mouth throughout that time, relying on charitable grants and piecemeal funding from one year to the next.

The VLN Primary School’s submission to the Education and Science Select Committee on the Education (Update) Amendment Bill is clear on this point. It states that it is “long overdue that this type of learning be brought into the ‘mainstream’ of learning for New Zealand students and resourced as such”.

“It feels like we’ve been in a holding pattern for years,” confirms Whalley. “We need sustainable revenue streams.”

The VLN began in 1997 in the secondary school sector and has experienced flurries of growth in the 20 years following, usually coinciding with technology updates, such as the ICT PD cluster and the implementation of high-speed broadband in schools. The VLN has experienced significant growth in the last eight years, with enrolment numbers increasing sharply. In the primary school sector, there were 12 enrolments in 2009; this grew to 450 enrolments in 2016, with 40 schools participating in 40 classes.

Whalley says the VLN gives schools, particularly small rural schools, more opportunities and more teaching capacity.

For example, in the primary school sector, the VLN delivers mainly languages and extension maths and science learning programmes. But the changes may allow it to expand into other areas.

The CoOLs will help to formalise and support the current work of VLNs, and will also give them the chance to develop further.

The risk of privatisation

At the same time, Whalley worries that the introduction of CoOLs may open the gates for organisations that are more focused on making money than supporting children’s learning.

“The concern is that kids will fall between the cracks, that there won’t be that pastoral care and support that is needed to support their learning.”

Many fear that CoOLs will be used as a means of lining the pockets of the likes of K12 Inc, an online charter school organisation that, according to Professor Gary Miron, has profited heavily from offering alternative education solutions while delivering poor outcomes and low student retention.

The VLN Primary School’s submission raises the concern that an open educational marketplace has the potential to undermine public schooling. It states that the proposed legislation “is very open and invites ANY provider to apply to be a CoOL, therefore opening the door wider to further privatisation of the education sector which could be fundamentally negative for the Aotearoa New Zealand education system”.

However, the Ministry of Education is adamant that the CoOLs will not become a vehicle for online charter schools and that there will be a high level of monitoring and accountability.

While Education Minister Hekia Parata says the CoOLs will be open to as wide a range of potential providers as possible, she also says there will be a rigorous accreditation process alongside ongoing monitoring to ensure quality education is being provided.

Funding fears

There are also fears over whether the Education Funding System Review will have a negative impact on small and rural schools. The whole legislative update is aligned with the funding review, which is currently underway.

In a Cabinet Paper outlining the next steps for the review, in clauses 70–73, it discusses the extra costs faced by small and isolated schools and how these schools would not be “educationally viable” if they received only curriculum-based per-student funding. It suggests a new approach that would take into account the potential for CoOLs to mitigate some of the costs in the operation of small and isolated schools.

Whalley believes this has the potential to be a threat or an opportunity – it very much depends on the detail.

“The VLN communities have come about to support a need in schools, and been of the schools’ own devising, but will they be used by the Ministry as an instrument to undermine the future viability of the very schools we seek to serve?

“I find this really concerning and look forward to seeing what detail will emerge from the review.”

Another Ministry paper titled Funding to support small schools notes that “it would appear that secondary and composite schools are relatively generously treated compared with primary schools across all roll sizes”. It reaches the conclusion that “there are opportunities to reduce the level of funding that is provided through base funding arrangements” for small schools to “allow more funding to be delivered on a per-student basis”.

Rural Women New Zealand president Wendy McGowan is concerned that funding to support small and isolated schools might be diverted into CoOLs.

“Rural schools perform a vital role in their communities, yet many are struggling to cope with the unique challenges of providing education in isolated areas. The Government’s first priority should be in further supporting these schools, rather than seeking out alternative providers, which could challenge their viability,” she says.

Stratford High School teacher Erin MacDonald agrees.

“They are not taking into account the specialist equipment needed. And I don’t think anything can beat the input of a classroom environment with a teacher working with the students. The relationships, rapport, discussions and debate are where much of the real learning takes place. You can’t replicate that through an online course.”

Accountability welcomed

The challenge will be to keep the legislation around CoOLs loose enough to allow flexibility, but the guidelines tight enough to ensure high levels of quality are maintained.

Whalley welcomes the increased accountability the legislation will bring to the VLN.

“We’ll be more accountable – which will be a good thing. We currently fly under the radar,” she says.

The VLN Primary’s submission states that “a regulatory framework for online learning is welcomed by the VLN Primary school to remove the operational barriers that have challenged us in our work across schools”.

Currently having no legal status within the schooling system means that they don’t have the oversight and support of educational agencies such as the Education Review Office. They also have no ability to share staffing, difficulty employing all teachers equitably according to their collective agreements, and no access to a wider range of PLD.

The VLN Primary is already working on bringing themselves in line with the schools system by developing a charter that aligns with the curriculum, streamlining its PLD, and firming up its admin and management systems.

The Education and Science Select Committee’s recent update to the legislation showed only minor changes to previous versions of the Bill. A lot rests on the finer detail that is yet to emerge; there are still question marks over how CoOLs will work for the VLN and New Zealand education as a whole.


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