Networked Schools: A Case for Normalising Online Learning

We have learnt so much from our recent experience(s) in lockdown, but have we fully grasped all possiblities?

The Context

Our recent, and now ongoing lockdown experiences thrust all educators into the experience of teaching fully online. I avoid the term distance, largely because I think it is both an anachronism and potentially creates a mindset in which we immediately see the barriers rather than the possibilities. For me, it isn't about the concept of 'Distance Education' as such. Rather, it is about how we use the internet to build a more equitable educational environment.

There were many other lessons from lockdown, many of which have been well captured by various educators, in particular, Derek Wenmoth’s summary. There is no need for me to repeat those here. We have realised the opportunities online learning provides in creating flexibility, visibility, and the chance to “challenge the existing structures of our system”. We have also learnt that there are significant inequities in our system. In fact, we probably did know this, but they were glaringly exposed over lockdown.

However, there is one area that I really feel hasn’t come out, although it does build on Derek’s reference to challenging structures and building equity.

The Issue

When Covid-19 was on the horizon, I put together this article as a warning. I felt we had a fundamental weakness in our system which largely proved to be correct. We did not, and still don’t have the capacity in our system to effectively respond to such a crisis. Some flourished, but many did not. I have great admiration for the hours of work everyone put in ensuring their students could continue learning, but there is a reason we referred to it as “Emergency Remote Teaching”. That’s what it was. An unplanned, quick response. What we did achieve was quite remarkable. However, the variation in response was also remarkable. It is still very clear that many did not (and still don’t) understand the fundamentals behind effective online learning and teaching.

Looking forward, there is little doubt we have learnt from the experience, but my question is how do we build capacity at a system wide level? How do we build on this experience? What is possible?

Making the Case

To fully understand how to ‘blend’ learning you need to teach fully online. This was very clear from the lockdown experience. Suddenly everyone was an online teacher and learner. We realised the opportunities that provides, but, how do we continue to learn? 

By normalising fully online learning and embedding it into our national educational system as something all schools engage in.

We do this by more widely adopting a networked schools model that has been employed in New Zealand in some form since 1994. Within this model schools share teachers across a wider network. By doing so they create another layer of curriculum online that is accessible to all that participate (whether programmes, projects or passion based learning - see Creative Forest). Imagine a teacher in Twizel Area School, taking senior secondary students from across New Zealand for a semester of Physics or a teacher at Logan Park High School taking a culturally based Introduction to Korean for a term. This is exactly what happens. All schools enter into a reciprocal relationship based on an exchange of teacher resourcing. This exchange means schools can place students into these programmes.

Now imagine this built into our system at a national level? If the majority of schools engaged? Both secondary and primary. We would create a seismic shift in our educational system. One in which major inequities are addressed and we build significant capacity into the system. 

The benefits are numerous when considered and go far beyond building teacher capacity. In fact, in the end, it is the learner that is the real focus here.

Benefits of a Networked Schools approach to online learning 

It will create breadth, coherence and flexibility in the curriculum available to learners. Schools work together to ensure online education complements, rather than replaces what is available within each school. School structures create far fewer barriers and introduces a measure of flexibility that would not otherwise be available. When curriculum planning and development is viewed across schools, decisions can be made that ensure effective and efficient use of the resourcing and staffing across the network of schools. Schools are then able to rationalise and still retain breadth of curriculum. As a result, schools, learners and teachers will have far greater certainty over the curriculum that is available. 

This will alleviate the pressure on resourcing specialist areas within schools and aids in the retention of subject specialists, because participating teachers are able to teach their specialist area. The Ministry will be able to work with networks to develop a national pool of freelance specialists who can be used online on a needs basis.

The embedded nature of online learning that occurs across schools provides significant challenges to traditional school systems and structures. It will encourage schools to ensure they keep in touch with technological developments and the implications for the future of schooling. For example, how do we structure the school day when students have complete flexibility over how, when and where they ‘do’ learning? The nature of how we approach learning will be challenged and this will have a flow-on benefit through the impact online learning has on the practice of participating teachers. The best of both worlds is a ‘blended’ approach, and this can only be fully realised by working in the online space. Learning and teaching online provides an important foundation for rethinking how we ‘do’ education

Teachers learn in a community of practice that runs across schools. Capacity is built as a collective and each teacher benefits through contact with a wide variety of other teachers.

Online learning will become ‘normalised’ and a natural part of a school, community and learner’s everyday life. This is, in turn, means learners participate in an online world that complements, rather than replaces their face-to-face environment. Fully online learning immerses learners in a managed online environment where they learn valuable lessons in how to act and behave as responsible digital citizens. It provides a rich environment for growing the dispositions and competencies we recognise as vital to modern society. Their school life mirrors the modern world and places them in a ‘connected’ environment that opens up their world beyond the local. 

Schools as networks reinforces the community based nature of the New Zealand educational system. It gives strong ownership at a learner, teacher and organisational level and ensures all members are able to influence programme development, strategic direction, learner support, and other key aspects of the network.

The Broader Context: The 'Network Society'

Technology, and in particular the internet, has had an undeniable impact on all aspects of society - Professor Manuel Castells, conceptualises this change as the rise of a ‘Network Society’ with the internet being the decisive technology in this change - “with the explosion of wireless communication in the early twenty-first century, we can say that humankind is now almost entirely connected”. We have an opportunity to continue to ‘modernise’ our education system and fully realise the potential that technology, and in particular, the internet, affords us. The ‘connected’ world Castell’s presents can be realised in New Zealand education by ensuring the learning opportunities provided to our learners are not constrained by time or place. Our current educational environment encourages schools to act as silos in a competitive, market-driven environment. This is the very antithesis of the vision of the world that Castell’s presents. Enabling networks of schools to provide online education, will be a significant step forward in ensuring our schools reflect the world around them.

Online learning does not represent some dystopian educational future that some would have us believe. It is an important part of a developing a “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?

What we haven't dug into here is what sort of learning experience are we talking about? "Online Learning" can mean anything. The innovations suggested here, mean little if learners are just working through structured, linear, and largely disconnected experiences. Why should learning online look any different to what we provide face to face? How do we create rich, meaningful experiences across schools that fully harness the possibilities the internet provides?