Among the changes being proposed as part of the Update of the Education Act 1989 is the introduction of a new form of education provision to be known as a COOL (Community of Online Learning) enabling students to learn via online programmes instead of in regular classrooms.
On the whole, the reaction to this announcement has been less than favourable, with a majority of opinion in the press focusing on the potential pitfalls and shortcomings of learning in this way. Another well-known New Zealander added her voice of concern about the proposed cyber-schools referencing the experience in the US where the Walton Family Foundation has admitted their online public schools have been a “colossal disaster”. Details of this are also reported in the 2015 CREDO report
So, what are we to make of this? How could such a political decision have been made when the evidence is so compelling that it doesn’t work? Or does it?
The reality in New Zealand is that online programmes of learning have been available to students for nearly twenty years through the virtual learning network and, more recently, the VLN Primary. These programmes cater for the needs of learners who cannot access the full range of curriculum options they want at their local school, and have a very successful track record in doing so. The case for students requiring attendance at a physical school where they can develop social and emotional skills is not argued — indeed, they get the best of both worlds.
Of course, there are other students for whom the option of attending a physical school isn’t available to them — these include those in remote and isolated locations, those who may be school-phobic, and those with special health needs. Students like this have also had their educational needs met through online programmes for some years now.
So, why decry the efficacy of online learning? It seems that in the response to what has been announced, the debate has failed to focus specifically enough on what is of concern, and, instead, galvanised a lot of sweeping assumptions and generalisations that exist about online learning as an option. It also brings into question the sorts of ‘evidence’ that are being used to defend people’s positions in the debate.
As with any form of debate like this, there is evidence that can be used to defend any position. Take the case of charter schools in the US. There are some reports claiming they are failing and letting children down, while others highlight the successes where they outperform regular schools. The truth is, of course, that both are correct — there are both successful and non-successful charter schools as illustrated in a recent report in the Economist Magazine that identifies a huge variation that exists among charter schools in the US.
In making claims about the efficacy, or not, of any alternative education system, it is important that one is familiar with the broad range of evidence available. It shouldn’t be simply a reference to a single piece of evidence that happens to support the stance being taken, particularly if the evidence itself lacks sufficient rigour in terms of reliability and validity. I saw a senior educator in New Zealand recently reported as saying ‘there’s a truckload of research that says online learning doesn’t work’. As both a practitioner and researcher in this area, I agree that there are a number of reports that point to failures in online learning — but equally, there are lots that demonstrate its successes. Each report must be understood in terms of its context and how generalisable the findings are based on that. Sadly, we’ve become very influenced by the media sound bites that seem to suggest it’s okay to be selective in terms of the particular sections or even sentences we use to quote in support of our position.
In formulating a response to a new policy such as the COOLs, it is important to be clear about the things that are concerning us. It is evident that there is a significant amount of concern around two aspects of the policy:
- First, is whether the intention is for some students to do all of their learning online, and whether this will create systemic issues regarding accountability and monitoring of students, and whether this will also be detrimental to their social and emotional development. The debate around who might benefit from access to online learning programmes and under what circumstances certainly needs to be clarified.
- Second, and perhaps most debated of all, is, who will provide these online learning programmes? The policy, as reported, appears to leave things very open in terms of who may set themselves up as a COOL, and while there is reference to a rigorous accreditation process, details of what that might look like and what the criteria will be are yet to be determined. This is certainly another area where informed public debate is required.
As the debates around COOLs continue, it is important that, as professionals, we:
- Ensure we are clear about what it is we are debating (or objecting to) and not confuse the issue by casting aspersions on the very things that can work and are working for some students, and
- Are thoughtful about the evidence we use to support our case and take time to locate and understand the body of evidence that can be considered reliable and valid in terms of what it represents.
For further reading:
- How online learning is revolutionising K12 schools and benefiting students
- Summary of research of the effectiveness of K12 online learning (PDF)
- Virtual learning as an impetus for educational change (PDF)
- Learning at NotSchool, a review of study, theory and advocacy for education in non-formal settings (PDF)
- Research roundup: Online Learning
- Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (PDF)