COOLs? are they as cool as they sound?

The National government is proposing a number of amendments to the NZ Education Act. One, which has already received quite a lot of press, sounds rather like a return to bulk funding under another name. But the latest one to hit the news is more like an untried social experiment with the potential for a lot of brown stuff to hit the fan.

And what is this proposal? They've certainly come up with a catchy title: COOLs – Communities of On-line Learning. The NZ Herald covered yesterday's announcement by the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, with its reporter stating that

any registered school, tertiary provider such as a polytechnic or an approved body corporate be able to apply to be a "community of online learning" (COOL).

Any student of compulsory schooling age will be able to enrol in a COOL – and that provider will determine whether students will need to physically attend for all or some of the school day.

Sounds cool? Not really. I try hard to be a glass-half-full sort of person, but I can see too many fishhooks in this proposal to be in any way confident that it should be rolled out in this fashion. 

Yes, I understand that there are some children for whom regular schooling really, really doesn't work. But we already have a range of alternatives in place for this cohort. Where is the evidence that going on-line is a better option? We also have the Correspondence School, Te Kura – surely we should be looking at how it operates in the digital space and enhance that if needed, before going full open slather?

The Minister is reported as saying 

This innovative way of delivering education offers a digital option to engage students, grow their digital fluency, and connect them even more to 21st century opportunities.

Yet digital options already exist in mainstream schooling & have been used very successfully to engage students, with notable successes – including for students at low-decile schools. So we should be encouraging & supporting teachers in all schools to investigate ways of doing these things, rather than setting up yet another layer of schooling – presumably also funded by the public purse – to 'fix' a perceived problem in an untried way. After all, a range of resources already exist – see here, here, & here, for example. 

There are other reasons for caution. COOLs sound a lot like MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Communities), which offer many good things to their potential users but which also have an impressively high drop-out rate – on average 80-90% of those beginning a course, fail to finish it. And that figure includes data from very high-quality options, such as those available through Coursera. Student motivation probably plays a large role in this – it can be quite hard to maintain motivation when contact with tutors and classmates is solely digital. Before the Minister's proposal is implemented, we need to be very sure indeed that any providers are able to maintain student engagement & motivation to succeed. 

There's certainly mixed evidence that digital learning, alone, can contribute to learner success. For instance, this study found that on-line learners – especially those where there was also an element of face-to-face contact – did tend to do better, but pointed out that 

conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media per se.

Plus there's evidence that on-line learning suits abstract thinkers more than those who need and use concrete examples in their learning: 

Successful telecourse students also preferred to look for abstract concepts to help explain the concrete experiences associated with their learning. That is, they wanted to know 'why' certain things happened in conceptual or theoretical terms. This more abstract approach clearly favoured success … [while] those who needed concrete experience and were not able to think abstractly were more high-risk in a telecourse.

There is also a significant social element to successful learning for most students. In fact, learning is about far more than acquiring factual information; there are a wide range of social attributes and what are commonly called 'soft skills' that students also need to gain. Indeed, in the tertiary sector the emphasis is more and more on institutions being able to demonstrate that they are producing work-ready graduates with a range of competencies and capabilities, including communication and teamwork skills, and other social skills that are difficult to come by in a digital context. 

And finally, it's difficult these days for many families to cope financially unless both parents are employed. Which leads me to ask: if students are able to spend part or all of their day learning on line and at a distance from their education provider, just who is going to be supervising them?

I'm sorry, Minister, but we need – and our children and students deserve – to see the actual evidence that this proposal works before it's put into action.

8 thoughts on “COOLs? are they as cool as they sound?”

  • If this was really about kids there would have been proper consultation about the strengths and weaknesses and the problems schools face using ICT, there would be PLD and a funded plan for implementation. Instead it’s been snuck in on the back of a bill that has been out for discussion for almost a year. Shabby process makes a shabby outcome a certainty.

  • Even charter schools had more of a policy development process before they came into law. This seems a wildly risky step to take – with the flimsiest of research and consultation, and what seems to be screeds of evidence against the option of open-access full time online learning. Let alone opening up all public schools to a competitive market place, which I’d thought the government had realised wasn’t working and were trying to wind back through CoLs.

  • I’d love to talk with you, Alison. NetNZ (formerly Otagonet and Cantatech) as a community of schools (currently 54) have been very successfully delivering online programmes of learning (currently more than 60 courses) to students around NZ. Without high attrition, with high engagement between students, and with their teachers – with most students are doing as well or better academically, than in their face to face classes.
    I absolutely agree with you about the social element, but good teacher can facilitate this in the online space, as well as in face to face settings.

  • It’s all bloody digital, and it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Why do politicians think that digital = intertubes = Good Thing? Pure laziness, avoids having to actually think I guess.
    Also, a digital exam means having a finger stuck up your arse.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    It sounds like you have an excellent model in place & it’s great to hear that it’s so successful. It sounds like this is a mixed model, with students taking both on-line & face-to-face classes? A lot of my concern lies with the potential for students to move to a fully on-line learning environment without the careful planning, pedagogy, & support needed to make it work – and with the potential for a mechanism like this to broaden/deepen divides that already exist. A solo parent, expected to be in work once their youngest is 6, is not going to be in a position to supervise on-line learning, for example (and may not be able to afford the technology either). There are too many unanswered questions here for us to rush down this route.

  • Alison, I have been reading your commentary regarding Communities of Online Learning.
    Whilst not a teacher myself, I have a very active interest in the debate around COOL’s. Both my parents are teachers, and for the 10 years my father has been involved in online education and for the last 5 to 6 years has been running is own online school in the UK.
    I understand your skepticism around the need for COOL’s in New Zealand, but I can assure you that in the right environment and with the right framework, COOL’s can be valuable resource in educating students. Not every student is suited to a mainstream school environment, and having a safe alternative for them is a positive thing.
    I agree though that time needs to be taken in developing the framework for this, and also selecting the right partners to deliver online lesson, to ensure the lesson content meets curriculum requirements, and the infrastructure allows for the same monitoring of a students progress as a school does at present.
    If you were interested in further research, these video case studies ( show how students have achieved success in the UK.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks, Paul, I appreciate your feedback and comments, & I’ll certainly make time to watch the videos you’ve linked to.
    I guess my main concerns are to do with the speed at which this has come to the fore, and with the apparent unwillingness to highlight what’s already being done in this area. You’ll have seen from a previous comment that we already have groups of schools operating in this space, & doing so successfully. Encouraging/supporting more schools to use this model, where appropriate, would appear to be a more positive step than basically encouraging open slather (with QA processes that are still unknown). Similarly we already have the Correspondence School as an option for students for whom mainstream schools aren’t working – if aspects of that are ‘broken’, then let’s address that first rather than throwing precious education funding into an unknown.

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