It’s school, but not as you know it

Term two starts today in a new virtual way. Some fear it will demoralise students, but Andrew Patterson reports on how it has worked for years at a pioneering decile one school in Auckland.

Education officials have scrambled to get schools and students ready for remote learning when the new term starts today, particularly for those lower-income families where computers and connectivity at home have long been an issue.

An almost $90 million digital support package announced by the Government last week included new laptops, modems and resources for students currently without connectivity. Students will also be supported by two new education channels on TVNZ.

But this won't be new to everyone.

One school where the students won’t be feeling too out of place with new arrangements is Point England School in Glen Innes, Auckland.

A pioneering programme, the Manaiakalani Education Trust, established in 2011 by a group of supportive philanthropists, allowed this decile one school and several others in the neighbouring area to pilot a successful digital programme in one of the poorest parts of Auckland where the average annual household income is less than $20,000.

Since its inception, all the students in the Manaiakilani cluster have been working exclusively on digital devices and the success of the programme has seen it rolled out to 93 other low decile schools around New Zealand.

Seven years later, it seems the rest of the country is about to catch up.

Principal Russell Burt said it was about time.

“Iona Holsted, the Secretary for Education, recently summed the situation up very well when she said the digital divide in our schools has existed for many years. What the current situation has done is highlight the extent of the problem, and now we have been given an opportunity to do something about it," Burt said.

There were few other alternatives for students to continue learning from home. “I think it’s the right thing to do but clearly there are always risks and rewards with these sorts of rollouts, particularly given the very short time frame that everyone has been working under. In an ideal world you obviously wouldn’t roll it out in this way this quickly, but the situation has been forced on us," he said.

And when it comes to teachers suddenly finding they have to become YouTube stars, he says good teachers learn to adapt, while those not up to the task will be challenged.

“Working in this way amplifies and exposes practice so good teachers quickly become evident. Equally, it works the other way, poor teaching will be clearly visible,” he said.

While critics might argue that it’s an expensive band aid for a short-term problem, Burt said the benefits didn't just apply to students.

“One of the real rewards as I see it is that this will allow a whole lot of households to be connected to the digital world, and to have the genuine citizenship and equity that has previously been missing in their lives. This has to be a good thing for New Zealand long term.”

Some may worry kids will just spend the time messaging their friends on Facebook or play video games, but technology exists that allows individual schools using the cloud to monitor what websites students are using, and how effectively they are completing their work, which allows teachers to intervene when necessary.

Devices locked and loaded

The Government has also been quick to point out that all devices will be supplied pre-loaded with a content filter to block inappropriate content, but Education Minister Chris Hipkins said parents would still need to be involved.

“As always with the internet, parents and whānau are encouraged to supervise their children’s online activities. Schools and kura may have suggested software or apps for this purpose, and there is helpful information for parents and children about staying safe online on the Netsafe website,” Hipkins said.

But not all principals are enthusiastic about the digital learning rollout.

One spoken to by Newsroom who leads a large low-decile school in Auckland and didn’t want to be named, believed the digital rollout would have limitations.

“Interacting with a device on an educational level is different from using Instagram, Fortnite or YouTube. The language is different, and it stills requires a certain level of literacy to use them effectively. A Chromebook is only a tool and a fairly open-ended one. They require a whole set of competencies on top of learning itself that can complicate learning if it’s not designed well. The same applies in a classroom environment.”

He was also worried about the impact of the lockdown itself on his students.

“I’m very concerned that our kids will have become unmotivated and lethargic towards learning after this lockdown. School will have an instant appeal when first returning - but it won't take long for students to feel the inevitable rust and it was only a couple of months ago they were feeling the same thing after the Christmas break," the principal said.

"This plus the baggage they may bring back from highly stressed home environments because of financial and domestic issues will be challenging. I am worried about all of this and somehow they’re now expected to self-manage their learning online and adapt to an environment that is largely unfamiliar to them," he said.

'A sea change in education'

However, Dr Niki Davis, Emerita Professor of e-Learning at the University of Canterbury believed the Government’s digital rollout would be a sea change for education in New Zealand.

"Online and remote teaching has unsung heroes in this nation for decades. Our research shows that many educators and policy-makers have misleading preconceptions of what is possible. Rather than a second-class mode for schooling, ‘virtual schooling’ as it has been called at times, has [the] potential to provide a more personalised route through schooling for many students when it is well-designed.

As with all technology rollouts, the results are likely to be dependent on a combination of adaption and innovation by individual schools and teachers.

But one thing is certain, many students today will experience the excitement we all get when we take charge of a brand-new digital device. It will certainly beat trying to work off mobile phones or share devices, as many have been forced to do up until now.

(Correcting year of beginning of Manaiakalani Education Trust to 2011 from 2013)

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