Cross-Examination: Too COOL for School – Is Reforming the Education Act The Right Thing To Do?

Isabel Ko

Last week, the Education (Update) Amendment Bill was introduced in Parliament by Education Minister Hekia Parata, proposing to better support an evolving education system. [1] As a part of this amendment, the bill proposes to “to enable new partnerships between schools and online learning providers, and enable children and young people to access their education through online delivery.”[2]

What does mean?

In its entirety, the Education (Update) Amendment Bill means that online learning will be introduced as a new mode of education in order to make it possible for students to learn anywhere, anytime and at any place. This mode of learning will manifest as Communities of Online Learning (COOL). Parata believes that COOL would be an innovative way of delivering education and that it will deliver the greatest benefits for students by offering them an alternative digital option to traditional attendance, allowing them to connect more with 21st century opportunities.[3]

This reform will allow any registered school, tertiary provider (such as a polytechnic), and private companies to apply to be a “COOL”.[4] For example, this means that a private provider – such as a private business – could become qualified as a COOL and therefore provide schooling; either in one area, such as technology or languages, in a blended environment (i.e. an integration of online and face-to-face learning), or across-the-board education as a fully-accredited online school.[5]

The crux of the reform means that any student of compulsory schooling age would be able to enrol in an accredited online learning provider instead of attending school in the traditional sense. And it would be up to that providers – “COOLs” – to determine whether students would need to physically go to school for all or some of the school day, or for specific activities or events.[6]

What could go wrong?

The idea of introducing new technology to offer students and teachers new opportunities and possibilities sounds desirable and will undoubtedly have its advantages. Yet, the proposed COOL reform has sparked concerns, especially regarding the fact that classroom-based schooling may be threatened.

Many education groups believe that it is a bad idea to let children enrol in online schools instead of going to regular schools. Angela Roberts, President of the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) says that the proposal to allow online schooling will be “the the biggest shake-up of the education system since the 1980s.”[7] She believes that it will damage the state education system that many children rely on; it will increase privatisation, and will reduce resources and support for the network of state schools.[8] Roberts emphasises that there are two fundamentally incorrect assumptions underpinning the proposed reform: (1) that online learning can substitute face-to-face learning; and (2) that a more competitive market in education through ‘COOL’ providers is going to lead to better results.[9]

New Zealand First’s Education Spokesperson Tracey Martin further adds that allowing school-aged children to do all of their learning online is one of the most dangerous things she has even seen in education.[10] Martin thinks that implementing online schools into the education system is the “final nail in the coffin devaluing trained and qualified teachers,” [11] and believes that it is the “largest social experiment in our children that we’ve ever seen in this country.”[12]

The Labour Party does support the idea of online schooling if it is a modernisation of the already existing Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) correspondence school.[13] However, Labour MP Chris Hopkins suggests that it would be “internationally not good”[14] if the reform simply opens up the opportunity for charter schools to step in. Green Party Education Spokesperson Catherine Delahunty supports this view and further adds that evidence from overseas highlights that online schools open the door for privatisation; charter schools try to grab these opportunities for profit without really benefiting the young people who enrol in them.[15]

Furthermore, there is the obvious concern faced by many: if children no longer went to a traditional school, how would they develop socially? Although learning is crucial in a schooling environment, social interaction for children is equally important. It is important to realise that being at home and learning online is not necessarily going to deliver all of the education experiences that a child should have. Also, it is hard not to mention how online schooling is going to affect the visibility of students and may mask wellbeing concerns such as illness, abuse and neglect. In the worst case scenario, schools could ultimately use this new alternative ‘open access’ as a way to ‘move on’ their troublesome students.[16]

A necessity, or an ill-planned social experiment?

With the already existing Te Kura correspondence school, the obvious question to ask is: is the reform really necessary? Is the government trying to fix something that isn’t yet broken?

The Ministry of Education thinks that the current Education Act 1989 does not reflect modern standards of educational delivery, and that it also restricts the choices that students can undertake.[17] The Ministry believes that amending the Act will counteract this problem by enabling a range of providers to offer online learning.  In their view, this will effectively increase the number of providers and will give students more choice; this could also drive greater improvements in school performance.[18] Thus, the Education Minister suggests that privatisation should not be a concern because any provider who wants to apply to be a COOL must meet a very rigorous accreditation process and will need to be signed off by the Minister herself.[19]

It is also necessary to address the elephant in the room: the current system clearly isn’t working for everyone.
Some children find the traditional school environment a challenge. Perhaps, this new path of ‘open access’ to online learning could provide positive alternatives to those students who struggle with the traditional environment. In the best case scenario, the amendment will allow students to enrol in the type of education delivery that best satisfies their needs – be it either face-to-face schooling, online schooling, or even a combination of the two. This way, it will mean that the reform will undoubtedly take into account a variety of students’ needs and will ultimately create an educational platform that satisfies the needs of all.

The verdict?

 It is obvious that the face-to-face learning and online learning have been converging for some time. Schools – primary, secondary and tertiary – have all engaged in some form of online learning to keep up with the pace of changing technology and teaching practices. Therefore, the fact that students will be able to choose how they learn and to have a much broader range of subjects sounds optimal. Hence, it seems that the mode of delivery – using the digital world to deliver education – shouldn’t be the sole concern.

Rather, the concern should really focus on whether these COOLs are going to be adequate enough to actually deliver the best education to all students.

The proposal sounds near-perfect in theory and will hopefully enable students to reach their fullest potential. However, there is no actual evidence to support its success. On the flipside, there exists evidence showing that historically, academic achievement for New Zealand correspondence school students is lower than that of students engaged in traditional schooling.[20] At this stage, the lack of actual evidence and research into online schools is limited and inconclusive. The unexperienced and untested nature of the Education Minister’s proposal seems too worrying to avoid. There needs to be more information, or otherwise, it is hard to avoid the fact that the government may be gambling with the future of our children. Our children and students deserve to see the actual proof that this proposal will work before it is all put into action.

The objective behind the Education Act being reformed is clear: Parliament is trying to build a stronger educational platform for the future generations to better fit the needs of the 21st century education system. However, at this stage, there numerous gaps in the proposal and valid arguments on both sides of the spectrum. Without any proof that the proposal is actually going to work, we are faced with the following dilemma:

Are we ready to take the jump and merge the digital world with the education system, or are we merely fixing something that isn’t broken?

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[1] Ministry of Education “The Education (Update) Amendment Bill” <www.education.govt.nz>

[2] Ministry of Education “Establishing a regulatory framework for online learning” <www.education.govt.nz>

[3] “Govt’s online learning provision under fire” (24 August 2016) <www.odt.co.nz>

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Nicholas Jones “Students to learn online from home instead of at school under major education reform” (23 August 2016) <www.nzherald.co.nz>

[7] Newshub digital staff “Online schools – education solution or ‘absolute disaster’?” (24 August 2016) <www.newshub.co.nz>

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Mei Heron “Online schools will supplement, not replace schools – minister” (24 August 2016) <www.radionz.co.nz>

[11] Ibid

[12] Jo Moir “Government education reform focuses on school-aged children learning from home” (23 August 2016) <www.stuff.co.nz>

[13] Heron, above n 10

[14] Heron, above n 10

[15] Heron, above n 10

[16] Ministry of Education Regulatory Impact Statement: Establishing a regulatory framework for online learning (11 August 2016)

[17] Ibid n 16

[18] Ibid n 16

[19] Ibid n 16

[20] Ibid n 16