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Why learn online? Looking beyond curriculum

Darren Sudlow —

If we are to prepare our learners for an ever changing world we need to see online learning as more than a bolt on to our local curriculum

For many years one of the main reasons for engaging in NetNZ for our member schools is to ensure they were able to maintain a broad and flexible curriculum. This is what drove the original innovation in the first place - sustaining local communities by meeting their children's needs locally. This was imperative for the very survival of many small area schools.

This need has not changed, but as modern society develops we are increasingly seeing the very strong influence technology, and in particular the internet is having over all aspects of our lives. This 2014 article by Professor Manuel Castells (he has a trilogy of books on this area if you want to explore further) is particularly good at summing up the breadth of these changes. In it he develops the concept of our current and emerging world being a “global network society” - a place where humanity is almost entirely connected. And he provides a very positive lens on this new and emerging environment. 

“People, companies, and institutions feel the depth of this technological change, but the speed and scope of the transformation has triggered all manner of utopian and dystopian perceptions that, when examined closely through methodologically rigorous empirical research, turn out not to be accurate. For instance, media often report that intense use of the Internet increases the risk of isolation, alienation, and withdrawal from society, but available evidence shows that the Internet neither isolates people nor reduces their sociability; it actually increases sociability, civic engagement, and the intensity of family and friendship relationships, in all cultures.”

He develops this view further by exploring the rise of social networking platforms and their impact on how many of us now socialise and work.

“Our current “network society” is a product of the digital revolution and some major sociocultural changes. One of these is the rise of the “Me-centered society,” marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. But individuation does not mean isolation, or the end of community. Instead, social relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. Community is formed through individuals’ quests for like-minded people in a process that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace, and the local space.”

“The virtual life is becoming more social than the physical life, but it is less a virtual reality than a real virtuality, facilitating real-life work and urban living.”

Not everyone will agree with this optimistic view of our current world, but it is almost indisputable that this is the world we are preparing our kids for. We therefore must develop educational environments that do this. And if we live in a “network society” it isn’t enough to merely attend school and to work in isolation from the world at large. We need our kids to walk into school and have the world opened up for them. To be able to connect, learn and influence as part of a “network society”. This may well be as part of existing face to face programmes and projects, but it also needs to be fully online. The digital world is immersive in this context, and as a result learners are able to fully develop as digital citizens.

I had an interesting conversation with a DP from one of our schools recently who had visited some of the new schools emerging around the country. While she recognised their innovations, she felt their little area school had the edge, because their students can step into a truly connected educational environment where they can take programmes that interest them with students spread across the country. Their world was so much bigger than what it would be otherwise.

Online learning does not represent some dystopian educational future that some would have us believe. It is an important part of a developing “network society” where technology and the internet are key enablers of a connected world. All our learners need to be able access such environments and all our schools need to ensure this access is available. Rather than locking it down to those few who we think already have the dispositions to succeed online, we need to open it up to all learners and then explore how we can support them to flourish in the environment.

Are we preparing them for the world we live in if we don’t?