Category Archives: virtual learning

Robots as teachers?

Robot teacher

Robots are becoming increasingly used to replace human activity in many areas of modern society. They've  been used for decades in various forms of manufacturing such as car assembly, in medicine and and are even used now in the dairy industry in New Zealand and other parts of the world. Tasks that were once considered too sophisticated and something that humans only could do are now being taken up by the use of robots

Education has long been considered sacred in this regard, with the catch cry "robots will never replace teachers" oft repeated. But consider how the repetitive and routine aspects of a teacher's job are already being replicated in the online world with software that provides adaptive learning experiences for learners, with increasing use of artificial intelligence behind it. In recent years, robots have crept onto the education scene, popping up in American classrooms as toy-like teaching assistants and in Japan as remote-controlled novelties.

And now a school in Columbus Ohio has introduced a new robo-teacher into its classrooms to allow staff in other parts of the country to teach their pupils. The 1.2 metre tall robot features a screen that broadcasts a video of the teacher's face and a camera allows the teacher to see what is going on in the classroom. In some ways this is not robots replacing teachers in the conventional sense, rather, robots enhancing the teacher presence by allowing a teacher in one location to be present with learners in another.

The headline in The Mail Online article reads "Is This the Future of School?" and goes on to describe how ROBOT lets teachers take lessons, check work and talk to students from thousands of miles away. The article lists the following features of the robot teacher:

  • A screen displays a video of their face while a camera allows them to see
  • Pupils say the robot felt weird at first but it made lessons more personal
  • The teacher can see the class and their work using the robot's camera

While the idea if a 'robot teacher' in a classroom conjures up images from sci-fi novels, the concept here is really only a step further from the traditional video conferencing approaches that have been used in education for more than a decade. Rather than crowding into a space to interact with the remote teacher on a screen, the remote teacher can now have a 'presence' in the physical classroom, with tools that allow her or him to act more like the traditional teacher might in the physical space. 

Of course, this is where the intrique reduces for me – as the fundamental premise of the robot as presented in this scenario is simply about replacing the physical teacher – not about changing or adpating the pedagogy in any way. So the robot takes on the role of the traditional instructor, with the one to many pedagogy of the traditional classroom – rather like the images from the jetsons some decades ago! while I can see some potential for this sort of thinking in cases where the persistent presence of a teacher may be required, say with learners with special needs, the concept of am instructionally oriented teacher being replaced by a robot like this doesn't exactly excite me – it's rather like replacing the traditional paper based exam with an online equivalent and calling it an advance in assessment. The arguments for and against the use of technology like this in education has long provoked reaction from a wide range of perspectives, as a recent article by Stephen Heppell in the Sydney Morning Herald illustrates (read in particular the responses at the bottom). We need to beware of the seduction of technology, yet critically aware of the ways in which it is incrementally permeating our lives, creating new opportunities, and new challenges. Education won't be immune. 

Jetsons robot teacher

Virtual learning as an impetus for educational change

Barbour_PaperFollowing the theme of my previous couple of posts, today we published a paper written by Michael Barbour (with a little help from me) titled Virtual Learning as an Impetus for Educational Change: Charting a way forward for learning in New Zealand. 

This paper has been a while coming, and is the product of a visit to NZ early last year by Michael Barbour during which he visited many of the schools involved in NZ's virtual learning network, and extensively researched the background of the  development of virtual learning in NZ over the past couple of decades. 

The purpose of the paper is to examine the current state of virtual learning in the schools sector, as well as chart a vision for the virtual learning in 2016 and beyond. In this document, first, we trace the history and development of the main types of providers of distance education to establish the context for the current provision of online distance and blended learning in New Zealand. Second, we examine the organisational models designed to allow for the continued development of these initiatives. Finally, we consolidate and expand these two organisational models to chart a specific vision for the future of education in New Zealand’s school’s sector.

For anyone who takes the time to read this document, I'd be interested to hear your reaction to the models we propose, and your ideas on how we might enact this to make it a real option for learners in 21st century NZ?

What works in blended learning

Education Week has just released  their second report in an ongoing series on virtual education titled Evaluating What Works in Blended Learning, that examines a number of examples of blended learning approaches  in the US context,  and aims to identify what is working and where improvements are needed.

The initial paper provides a useful definition of blended learning and the 4 approaches described by the Innosite Institute – and the cases studies that follow are taken from a number of US-based schools and school districts to illustrate a range of implementation models from which useful lessons can be learned. 

With increasing interest in incorporating blended learning approaches in NZ schools, this report will make useful reading for principals and school leaders looking for models to adopt or lessons to learn from as they develop their own.

The paper is presented an e-book that can be read on your laptop or mobile device and can be viewed here.

NZEALS conference presentation

Today I had the opportunity to make a presentation to the NZEALS conference being held in Tauranga. I was in Wellington at the time, participating in the DEANZ conference, but took the opportunity to make the link to Tauranga via video conference (thanks to the folks at asnet). 

The NZEALS committee had asked me to share my thinking about the future direction for education in NZ, focusing on blended learning, the role of online communities of practice in this, and the emergence of networked schooling models.

The essence of my message was that we must move our thinking beyond the autonomous, self-manging schools model of Tomorrows Schools, and look to a system model of Networked Schooling if we're to achieve a future-focused education system that is robust and responsive to the needs of 21st Century learners. I outlined how this is already happening in New Zealand with the emergence of school clusters using video conferencing and other technologies to share classes, resources and staffing, but that this activity has now reached the point where it needs more systemic support in terms of policy change and changes in leadership style and approach. 

Back at the DEANZ conference we were having some similar discussions, with the establishment of a schools special interest group (SIG) within DEANZ which will aim to focus attention on supporting the development of open, flexible and distance educaiton practices in the various school networks and clusters that are emerging here – and linking with similar initiatives in Australia through our links with AADES there. 

The future is blended

Will 2012 be the year where we see blended learning become more commonly accepted?

The recent announcement from MIT about the development of its MITx education initiative certainly is a step in the right direction. MITx is designed to enhance the educational experience of its on-campus students, offering them online tools that supplement and enrich their classroom and laboratory experiences.

MIT’s online learning initiative is led by MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif who says "Students worldwide are increasingly supplementing their classroom education with a variety of online tools." No surprises there – in almost every school I visit I see evidence of students incorporating online content in their work, or using online tools and applications to publish and share what they do – what's happening at MIT seems to be a natural way forward.

A recent eSchool news article titled Some see blended as the future of education reports how in the US an increasing number of school districts are embracing digital learning as the next step in improving education.

All of this is very promising, but at the eSchool News report emphasises, the blended learning future won't just happen without some changes to the policy environment in which schools operate. They report that a number of stakeholder groups are hoping to guide policy makers in the US in their efforts to implement state-level online learning policies, and reference the report titled Digital Learning Now!” (PDF download) that I blogged about back in 2010 when that report was released.

This is true in New Zealand as well. With the ongoing growth of the Virtual Learning Network, and of the regional Urban Fibre Networks, not to mention the promise of a Network for Learning, the need for our Ministry officials to be focused on enabling policy work is now critical if we're to avoid the situation where the technology exists, but schools/teachers are prevented from using it to its full potential because of a lack of enabling policy, or worse, policy that doesn't cater from the new environments and actually becomes a block to progress being made. 

So much of our existing policy has been designed for the face to face world in the "tomorrow's schools" mindset (pre-WWW days), and is no longer appropriate to serve the needs of a networked schools, blended learning future for education. 

The following list of areas I believe need to be addressed is an updated version of a list I originally compiled back in 2007 – just to keep the ball rolling…

Issues to be addressed before the use of distance/eLearning methodologies can become truly systemic in NZ include:

Policy issues

  • How can student funding be shared between schools?
  • How can staffing, including management units, be shared among schools
  • What evidence needs to be gathered to demonstrate the worth of this?
  • How do we incentivise schools to collaborate and engage in a 'networked' future in the post-tomorrow's schools environment of self-management and competitiveness? 

Technology issues

  • Connectivity and interoperability – who sets the standards?
  • Networks – access, speed, data costs etc.
  • Services  – what is required? Centralised vs local provision and choice? Cloud-based or hosted?
  • Software licensing, updates and maintenance issues?

Curriculum issues

  • Assessment – developing consistency in approach
  • Reporting – enabling a unified student report from several ‘schools’ etc
  • Modularisation – a different view of ‘course’
  • RPL – includes recognising the value of informal learning

Staffing issues

  • Need to create more flexibility in recognising teacher roles: e-teachers, m-teachers, c-teachers,
  • How to involve those with real subject expertise as mentors, hotseats etc.
  • Remuneration processes for online teachers,
  • Recognition of online teaching roles for teacher registration

Pedagogical issues

  • “personalisation” – what does it mean? How do we make it happen?
  • Tyrany of assessment practices that mitigate against 'open' classroom practice and constructivist or connectivist learning theory.
  • Staff training – how to train a large group of the teaching force in these new approaches?

Leadership and coordination issues

  • where does the leadership come from?
  • What form should leadership take?
  • What coordination is required nationally, locally etc?

Learning Resource issues

  • How best to provide resources for learning to support teachers in this environment
  • learning objects, repositories, search tools – who provides them, who manages them etc?
  • how to cater for user-generated resources?
  • Copyright and IP issues – how are these to be managed? CC vs. ©

Quality issues

  • What is best practice?
  • What are quality indicators?

(Image from eSchool News )




Has the time for virtual learning arrived…?

The latest CFH newsletter arrived in my inbox today, with the lead article titled "Changing Tradition" in which Patrick Walsh, President of the Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand describes his experience of a recent trip to Toronto, Canada. He shares his impressions of what access to ultra-fast broadband means for the students who can now choose from a wide range of learning options, only some of them from their own school.

My friends and colleagues working in schools that are a part of the the Virtual Learning Network in NZ will be pleased to see this – as this is the reality of the world they've been working in for nearly a decade. 

Walsh points to what is happening in NZ in schools like Botany Downs where more open and collaborative work spaces are being created, and changes in pedagogical approaches where students take increased responsibility for their own learning and where the teacher no longer has to direct everything.

The concept of learning in a way that is no longer bound by time and space (factors that fundamentally drive the current pedagogy of schools) was highlighted in a report I blogged about earlier this  year titled Future Work Skills, published by the Institute for the Future and the Phoenix University Research Institute.  In this report identifies the globally connected world as one its six drivers of change, stating that increased global interconnectivity puts diversity and adaptability at the center of organizational operation. The report then goes on to idenitify ten skills for the future workforce, of which virtual collaboration (defined as  ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team) is one. 

Bottom line here is, if being a part of a globally connected world is indeed a key driver of change for the future, and virtual collaboration is one of the ten key skills for participating in the workforce in the future, then our schools of today can no longer remain stuck in the mire of indecision about whether or not to provide these sorts of experiences for students. We have ample evidence in NZ that virtual schooling can provide a viable option for learners (ref again the VLN), and an increasing amount of international evidence that learning in this way provides us with confidence that levels of achievement in online programmes can be at least as good as face-to-face ones.  

Such views are supported strongly by those such as Dr. Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard University and author of Disrupting Class, He says:

"The rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize his or her fullest potential." 

He also speculates…

"I think it will not be long before people will see that those who took their education online will have learned it better than people who got it in the classroom, and that’s exciting."

I am one who shares this view – but the road ahead will not be easy, and it won't happen quickly (at least, not if it's left to the current generation of teachers, administrators and bureaucrates to implement). I welcome the contribution Patrick Walsh is making to the discourse around how we might see school transformation take place, and look forward to seeing more of this take effect in our schools in NZ. 

Online teacher standards

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) has just released a revised version its standards that define high-quality teaching in online and blended-learning programs. The aim of the revision is to address the need for more personalize learning.

With the rapid increase in the number of online courses and virtual schools in the US and internationally, the demand on teachers to adopt practices that are appropriate to these environments it is useful to have such a framework to help both teachers and administrators maintain a quality focus on what is happening in this area. 

It would be beneficial for some similar thought to be given to designing such a framework for the NZ context. The key areas listed below would be a good starting point, although the heavy emphasis on assessment strategies that appear throughout the iNACOL standards would obviously need to be altered in the NZ context.

I also found it interesting the whole area of instructional design was given only one section at the end of the standards – again, something that would need to be considered in the NZ context where teachers take more responsibility for the planning and desing of online learning, rather than simply 'delivering' pre-prepared courses. 

The key areas included in the iNACOL framework are:

  1. Knowledge of the primary concepts and structures of effective online instruction and ability to create learning experiences to enable student succeed.
  2. Understanding and ability to use a range of technologies, both existing and emerging, that effectively support student learning and engagement in the online environment.
  3. Ability to  plan, design, and incorporate strategies to encourage active learning, application, interaction, participation, and collaboration in the online environment.
  4. Promotion of student success through clear expectations, prompt responses, and regular feedback.
  5. Modelling, guiding, and encouraging legal, ethical, and safe behavior related to technology use.
  6. Addressing the diversity of student academic needs and incorporates accommodations into the online environment.
  7. Demonstrating competencies in creating and implementing assessments in online learning environments in ways that ensure validity and reliability of the instruments and procedures.
  8. Develop and deliver assessments, projects, and assignments that meet standards-based learning goals and assesses learning progress by measuring student achievement of the learning goal.
  9. Demonstrate competency in using data from assessments and other data sources to modify content and to guide student learning.
  10. Interact in a professional, effective manner with colleagues, parents, and other members of the community to support students’ success.
  11. Arrange media and content to help students and teachers transfer knowledge most effectively in the online environment.



Will the future of education be virtual?

 Will the future of work be virtual was the title fo a link posted by a colleague of mine yesterday. While the article poses the question in the context of work, based on a construct of outsourced workers in a globalised context, I was intrigued by the title, thinking of the challenges faced in education, and how the response is increasingly leading us to think virtually (not that I believe the face-to-face and local context will disappear completely – we must stop thinking in binary terms in a digital world!). Rather, I think we will inevitably need to be thinking virtual with regards the future of education in order to sustain and achieve what we currently do or attempt to do in our local school contexts. 

I had the privilege recently of hosting a colleague from the US, Michael Barbour, whose blog Virtual School Meanderings provides a continuous update on the development of virtual schooling in the US in particular, but internationally as well. Seems that in all jurisdictions school systems are embracing notions of virtual education to meet needs that aren't currently being addressed. This includes providing access to curriculum not provided for in the local school, making available remedial options for students who require them, forming innovative partnerships with business or tertiary providers, meeting the objectives set in IEPs, providing home schooling alternatives, and catering for the needs of returning students for instance. 

In New Zealand the development of the Virtual Learning Network is set to escalate further, with the rollout of ultra-fast broadband providing opportunities for urban and rural schools to consider ways of sharing curriculum, resources, teaching skills and expertise etc.

Significantly, the issue of providing virtual access to learning has come into sharp focus for schools in Christchurch where I live (and have children at school) as students have lost many weeks of attendance at a physical school first through the earthquakes, and more recently because of snow forcing school closures. I was heartened earlier this week when I received a note from my son's high school to advise that the school would be closed because of snow – and included a reminder that he could continue with his learnig by accessing his course materials online via the school's website. this is all a part of the big picture of what I regard as virtual schooling – not a matter of "either-or", but a part of a fully integrated whole, that can provide options and alternatives to meet demand and circumstance.

My colleagues and I at CORE have been involved with the development of virtual schooling for some time now, and have included it in our ten trends as a significant area of development. The video above is the most recent of our Ten Trends series for 2011, and in it I explain what I see as the three key areas of opportunity for schools to explore in the virtual space (the three Ps):

  • Programmes – the virtual learning that links with student learning in a formal sense – includes the provision of courses, modules, units of work etc, generally linked with assessment and with formal qualifications frameworks. 
  • Projects – includes the more spontaneous, special focus events and opportunities that may see students link with students in other parts of the world to explore a specific issue, or particpation in a virtual field trip etc. These may be  a part of formal learning in the classroom, but will usually supplement or be embraced within the formal programme of learning provided there. 
  • Professional Learning – where teachers are able to look beyond what is provided within their own school, or local context, and can look to participating in professional learning opportunties that address the needs and concerns they have. Includes opportunities that are beginning to be explored for virtual whole school PL – with external facilitators using online environments to mentor and facilitate groups of staff.

These Ps are also included in the LCO handbook that is available online, providing advice and guidance to schools and clusters of schools that are beginning to plan for participation in the virtual learning world. 

Rise of blended learning

Blended learning is the ‘buzz’ word around the world at the moment it would seem. It appears regularly through recent Ministry of Education documents on eLearning and effective teaching, and is a centre-piece of the latest round of eLearning professional development contracts.

We’ve certainly seen a rise in blended learning approaches in some NZ schools in recent years, particularly within the Virtual Learning Network, and now within some of the UFB schools, such as the GCSN in Christchurch.

A report just out from the US brings a timely perspective to this phenomenon, focusing specifically on the schooling sector. Titled, The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, the report concludes that, in the US, what was originally a distance- learning phenomenon no longer is. Most of the growth is occurring in blended-learning environments, in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time.

The report is co-authored by Michael, Horn, who, along with Clay Christiansen and Curtis Johnson, wrote Disrupting Class, in which they address the dilemma of why, despite massive investment in technology over the past two decades, schools have failed to see the significant changes that have occurred in so many other areas. Their conclusion, schools have simply ‘crammed’ the technology into existing structures – they haven’t allowed it to disrupt the traditional ways of doing things.

Blended Learning may well prove to be a form of disruption that brings about the change we’ve been seeking. However, the K-12 report brings a stern warning:

The growth of online learning in brick-and-mortar schools carries with it a bigger opportunity that has not existed in the past with education technology, which has been treated as an add-on to the current education system and conventional classroom structure. Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost.

Policymakers and education leaders must adopt the right policies for this to happen. There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model—and, just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education.

The point is, if we’re to successfully embrace the potentially huge opportunities that a blended learning approach can offer, we have to be prepared to disrupt our existing structures, mindsets and ‘comfort zones’. That will take leadership (see my previous post) – not just management.

For those in classrooms, the essential focus must be on pedagogy. Online learning doesn’t automatically mean effective teaching – in fact, it amplifies the pedagogical practices of the classroom, both good and bad. Sadly, from my experience, what tends to happen most is that it amplifies the fact that we still live in a world where the primary pedagogical construct focuses on content as king, with delivery of content the norm. This is a killer in the online world. this is reflected in many of the comments posted under the article about the report, including this one from a teacher…

Teachers in traditional schools can use an online component- as I do- to replace uninspired worksheet style homework assignments. Instead of requiring my high school English students to complete analysis questions or reading comprehension questions that take hours to grade, I now use my structured online discussion forum- Collaborize Classroom- to engage students in dynamic student let discussions. I have tried blogs and wikis with students to little success, but my Collaborize site actually lets me post different types of questions- multiple choice, yes/no, vote and suggest and forum- to structure discussion and add variety to conversations.

The blended learning phenomena looks like it’s here to stay – and I say “bring it on”. BUT, let’s also take note of the insights provided in this report (and others) that point to the need for shifts in policy and pedagogical practice.

For more commentary on the report read this eClassroom News article.

Digital Learning Now

I’ve been totally snowed under for the past couple of weeks, and missed blogging, but the’s release of a report from the Digital Learning Council has caught my attention when I saw it this morning on the Education Week blog. They’ve released a ‘roadmap’ to overhaul education in the US, recommending  major changes to state education policy, many of which would I’ve been advocating here in NZ for some time.

Recommendations in the report titled “Digital Learning Now!” (PDF download) include abolishing seat-time requirements  and overhauling public school funding models – both of which are policy changes long overdue in the NZ school system in my opinion. Other recommendations such as inking teacher pay to student success aren’t what I’d advocate – but I can understand the intention when the report writers are looking for ways to accelerate this change, and teacher resistance is often identified as a key factor.

Reports affirming the joint sentiments that (a) school reform is necessary and (b) technology can play a key role in enabling this are not new (see some of my previous blog posts here and here), and we have evidence of this working in practice in NZ for some time now (see blog post here from 2005).

The NLC report contains a list ofwhat they call 10 elements of High Quality Digital Learning:

  • Student eligibility:  all students are digital learners
  • Student access: all students have access to high quality digital content and online courses
  • Personalised learning: all students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider
  • Advancement: students progress based on demonstrated competency
  • Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning courses are high quality
  • Instruction: digital instruction and teachers are high quality
  • Providers: all students have access to multiple high quality providers
  • Assessment and accountability: student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction
  • Funding: funding creates incentives for performance, options and innovation
  • Delivery: infrastructure supports digital learning.

These ‘goals’ for a digitally enabled learning future for students resonate with me, with many already in practice in initiatives such as NZ’s Virtual Learning Network – but as the report states, changes are needed at policy level to truly liberate schools and education leaders to advance things in this direction.

Let’s hope someone takes notice 🙂