The VLN Communities circa 2008Lots of secondary regional clusters, just prior to the initiation of the VLN Primary. by Rachel Whalley

A Quick History of Virtual Learning in New Zealand Schools

Virtual learning has been taking place in New Zealand schools since the early 1990s when schools collaborated to share teachers and resources and provide online classes to each other’s students through the internet.

Clusters of schools and the Correspondence School began to collaborate to teach online classes using audiographics in 1994. Canterbury area schools initiated Casatech and later TosiTech (Top of the South) was formed. Audiographics required two phone lines, one to provide the audio connection and another to send still images to a computer screen. More schools began to work in similar ways, such as Ngata Memorial College, who, in partnership with Te Puni Kōkiri, made these recommendations to the Ministry of Education: 

  • that they recognise their pioneering role in telelearning education and support the expansion to other New Zealand schools; 
  • that links be expanded to Colleges of Education; 
  • that they recognise the Māori cultural context and consult with the broader Māori community; 
  • and that they should no longer be considered a small school but be funded as a virtual school. 

Stevens (1998) differentiated distance education as belonging to an industrial age model and telelearning to the information age. He described a changing educational environment becoming evident in schools, where schools were inter-connected through ICT networks, and using technologies to provide new and better ways of learning.

The KAWM (Kaupapa Ara Whakawhiti Matauranga) network initiative, begun in 2000, enabled several school clusters, consisting of Wharekura, East Coast area schools & Māori boarding schools, to use video conferencing to provide online classes and professional development for teachers. Evaluation of the KAWM initiative made recommendations that there needed to be: 

  • more development in the knowledge and skills appropriate for a learner centred curriculum and teacher pedagogies in the digital age; 
  • robust and effective technology infrastructure; 
  • and adequate and ongoing funding to support schools to coordinate elearning.

Following on from the KAWM initiative, many more regional clusters formed in quick succession over the decade and became collectively known as the VLN (Virtual Learning Network), until by 2010 over half of New Zealand’s Area Schools and Secondary Schools had some students learning online .

These school networks were developed to meet the needs of small rural schools to enable them to extend the curriculum for their students. There was a range of drivers that led to the growth in virtual learning:

  • Schools were at risk from declining rolls and pressure to retain staff; 
  • there was dissatisfaction with the Correspondence School, which had traditionally provided courses to rural senior students; 
  • and school leaders were beginning to realise the potential of emerging technologies that would enable schools to collaborate online. 
With telelearning, schools should no longer be considered as small schools when they are open and networked with other schools. This move from closed to open contributed to the sustainability of education in small rural communities. Stevens (2010) elaborates on this point when he states, “An increasing number of schools in rural NZ have increased in size in terms of the curriculum they provide both on-site and online” (p 171).

There was little documented about virtual learning at the primary school level until the formal development of the VLN Primary School in 2009.  In 2004 Rick Whalley, then Principal of Pitt Island School in the Chatham Islands, was collaborating with Rere School to share learning across their two remote schools. Rick saw the activity in secondary networks and began to advocate for support from the MoE for Primary schools to engage in virtual learning. In 2008 Rick led the collaboration of three schools to share online language classes, and a case study was developed  that resulted in the Ministry of Education supporting the fledgling VLN Primary School. 

Although the VLN Primary School was initiated to support the provision of Years 7 and 8 languages, it soon realised the opportunity to widen the range of curriculum choices, to provide a variety of learning experiences in addition to formal classes, and to grow the professional capacity of teachers to better meet the needs of learners and teachers. There is a small percentage of primary age students enrolling in virtual classes compared with secondary students, but in recent years there has been significant growth. By 2017 the VLN Primary School had grown to 870 students, a 400% increase in growth over a five year period.

The development of new technologies and the improvement of broadband services to schools were significant in the growth of virtual learning in New Zealand. Project Probe, initiated in 2002, enabled schools to move from audiographics to video conferencing. More recently, considerable investment by the government in schools’ infrastructure, fibre and rural broadband rollouts, and the development of a dedicated managed network for schools providing free, fast internet have enabled all schools to have the technology needed to access virtual learning opportunities. 

In 2019 the VLN Communities members are NetNZ, VLN Primary School, FarNet, HarbourNet, Volcanics and WelCom. This year they provided learning opportunities for 200 schools  and 3000 learners from Year 1 - 13 from across New Zealand

An extract from 'Collaboration across New Zealand rural primary schools: A virtual learning perspective' with references removed. The full research report and references can be found here.