E-learning opens paths

Embracing online education ... Reggae Matchitt (16), of Roxburgh Area School, strikes a pose in...
Embracing online education ... Reggae Matchitt (16), of Roxburgh Area School, strikes a pose in the spirit of her level 2 drama course studied through NetNZ. PHOTO: YVONNE O’HARA
An online learning system developed to help pupils in small rural schools is being embraced by those in city centres as well. Pam Jones finds out how e-learning is changing the face of education in Otago.

One of just 64 senior  pupils at a school surrounded by farming country and open plains, Anna Stewart’s choice to study Korean might seem an unusual one to some.

But the 14-year-old Maniototo Area School pupil is making the most of an online learning system that has changed the way pupils at small rural schools operate. For Anna and her peers, studying Korean is as likely and as possible as doing traditional subjects such as history, maths and physics. E-learning has revolutionised learning at these schools, the system succeeding through the hard work and innovation of pupils and teachers alike, those involved say.

But although it started as a way to provide more subject choice for pupils at small area schools and prevent roll decline in rural regions, city counterparts have also adopted the system, many pupils choosing to study through e-learning because of the flexibility and advantages it provides.

Anna is doing a beginner’s course in Korean and says, although there can also be challenges with e-learning, her studies are going well.

Fellow Maniototo pupils Ben Smith, Candy Ferdinands, Courtney Smith and Kenzie Stewart also praise the system, saying the wide subject choice e-learning offers allows them to stay at their Maniototo school whereas otherwise they might have had to go to boarding school to study the subjects they wanted or needed to do.

The e-learning of the Maniototo pupils — and that of another 800 like them — is done through NetNZ, a ‘‘community’’ of schools in Otago, Southland, Canterbury, the West Coast and Nelson-Marlborough that also delivers online learning to some North Island pupils. The Ministry of Education estimates 3000 secondary pupils and more than 1000 primary pupils nationwide are studying one subject or more through NetNZ and other similar organisations, such as FarNet and BayLink, which are based in the North Island. (Another 22,000 pupils study subjects through Te Kura, formerly known as the Correspondence School).

Otago was one of the first areas to embrace online learning. OtagoNet was formed back in 2000 following trials before that, to help small schools wanting to retain pupils and offer greater subject choice. Schools such as the Roxburgh, Maniototo and Lawrence area schools were among the 11 founding schools and it started with 11 subjects delivered to about 100 pupils.

In 2013 OtagoNet merged with its Canterbury, Southland and West Coast equivalents to form NetNZ, which now offers about 70 subjects to about 800 pupils.

It’s a kind of 21st century correspondence school, enabled by technology.Basically groups of pupils study a subject that is delivered by a teacher based somewhere else. Pupils work both online and on paper, meeting with each other and the teacher once a week through a video conference. Extra online tutorials and ‘‘hangouts’’ (group online conversations) can be provided, and assessments are uploaded online.

NetNZ information says courses usually consist of 10-18 students from 5-10 different schools. Each school has an eDean who provides on-site support for pupils and acts as a point of contact for the subject teacher.

NetNZ’s catchphrase is ‘‘Innovate Educate Anywhere’’ and its website says courses are run using an online hub or class space which acts as the focal point for learning and interaction.

‘‘These class spaces are developed by the teacher using their tool of choice — usually a google+ community. Some courses are fully online, but the majority are a mix of paper and online learning. Each class meets once a week using a video conference which acts as an important point of contact between teacher and students.’’

As well as traditional subjects such as chemistry, geography and French, NetNZ pupils can also choose from less common subjects such as Chinese (Mandarin), Samoan, classical studies, media studies and philosophy, and some which may seem hard to deliver online, such as Maori performing arts, photography, electronics and electrical engineering, robotics and physical education.

Roxburgh Area School eDean Lynda Walsh-Pasco is the teacher who delivers the level 2 and 3 physical education courses for NetNZ and she says it takes hard work and creativity to deliver and study physical education through an online network, but it is ‘‘absolutely doable’’ and works well. The theory component of the physical education programme is easily done online, and practical assessments are videoed and uploaded for Mrs Walsh-Pasco to assess.

The work of schools’ eDeans is paramount, as is a good work ethic from pupils.

Mrs Walsh-Pasco says strong support and encouragement of pupils by eDeans is vital. She and Roxburgh Area School pupils Alex Darling and Kaela Muir, both 17, say e-learning requires exceptional motivation, commitment and time management, to a level which can sometimes be challenging to maintain.But that ‘‘challenge’’ can become one of the positives of the system, pupils and eDeans say. The organisational skills and self-discipline developed from studying online turn into a massive attribute that holds pupils in good stead for future study or careers, and can even put them ahead of others.

NetNZ operations leader Ken Pullar, who is also known as the organisation’s ePrincipal, agreed.‘‘Students are growing in quite powerful ways through the experience.’’

Mr Pullar, Mrs Walsh-Pasco and Maniototo Area School eDean Kelvin Robertson — who teaches level 2 physics for NetNZ — say e-learning is no barrier to success. Pupils achieve as highly as they would studying a subject in school the ‘‘traditional’’ way. Some secondary pupils are doing as many as five subjects through NetNZ, and still getting merit and excellence grades.

Otago principals and eDeans and NetNZ teachers know systems can always be improved, and are at present contributing feedback to research for a ‘‘Deep Support’’ eDeans programme, which is also asking pupils how e-learning could be further enhanced. Findings from that feedback process will be distributed to schools later this year.But the system that started at a grassroots level in rural schools has already won over city counterparts.

Mr Pullar said many pupils from larger schools were also choosing to study through NetNZ, preferring the independence and options it offered.‘‘They like to be in charge of their own learning. It gives them more flexibility. For them e-learning is almost a learning style choice.’’Logan Park co-principal Peter Hills said 40 to 50 of the school’s 600 pupils studied at least one subject through e-learning. For some it was the learning style that attracted them, for others it helped solve timetable clashes or provided an enrichment or extension programme.‘‘It’s great ... they [pupils] own their learning. They decide where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.’’Timetables were fitted around pupils’ needs, the school considered an ‘‘enabler’’, with a duty to put pupils first.‘‘We think that’s how schools should work. We’re very much about the student.’’

Staff at several schools spoken to by the Otago Daily Times said they were now waiting on more information about the Government’s announcement of ‘‘Cools’’ (Communities of Online Learning).

Ministry of Education head of education system policy Andrea Schollmann said Cools would provide more flexibility for young people’s learning through accredited providers offering full or part-time online tuition.‘‘We are currently developing regulations to support the operation of Cool and will be consulting with the education sector on the regulatory settings next year. ... Otago schools, and other organisations, including NetNZ, will be able to seek accreditation as a Cool.’’

But in the meantime, Otago schools would keep doing the e-learning they had been doing for more than a decade, and let the good stories continue, Mr Robertson, of Maniototo Area School, said.

‘‘To do it [e-learning] at our local, little school with just under 200 kids is just to dream of.’’

pam.jones@odt.co.nz

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