Imagine you are a year 13 student in a rural area, say Tapanui (between Dunedin and Invercargill) or Kaitaia in the Far North. You want to study accounting, or Samoan, or chemistry, but your school doesn’t have a teacher in those subjects. Correspondence School has always been an option, but increasingly now you will study in a normal class, only your teacher and fellow students will come from all over the country, and your lesson will be conducted via the internet.
Which sounds great, and is certainly a better option than not being able to take a subject you may need later on. But until recently, the reality of slow, unreliable broadband in most rural schools made these distance classes a bit hit-and-miss, says Mina Pomare-Peita, principal of Te Kura Taumata o Panguru, an 83-student, 100% Māori, year 1-13 school in Northland.
“With online learning, each video conference class is scheduled at a particular time each week. But our internet used to drop out all the time, and if it dropped out during that class, that was it for the week, and that was frustrating and not effective learning.”
Since her school got connected to high speed RBI fibre broadband via the N4L Managed Network (the NZ schools’ fast broadband programme) in May last year, however, the connection problems have disappeared, Pomare-Peita says, and the quality of video and audio during the lessons is far higher. “Now it’s like having the teacher right there, so attendance is better and buy-in from students is great.”
Carolyn Alexander-Bennett, e-Principal of online learning community FarNet, and an online NCEA level 3 accounting teacher, agrees. She says until the advent of N4L, the technology connecting teachers to their students all over the country was often clunky and unreliable.
For example, because internet speeds were slow, teachers couldn’t see all the students at the same time – only the one who was talking. Now it feels and looks more like a real classroom, Alexander-Bennett says. Second, there was a wide difference in sound and picture quality depending on where the students were and how good their connection to the network was. Sometimes the picture would flicker or pixelate irritatingly, or there would be an annoying time lag with the audio. Often teachers couldn’t use their computers to show content during the lesson because outdated equipment or slower speeds meant not all students could see it.
That’s all changed, and more and more students are opting for online learning to deliver the classes they want. This year, for example, Te Kura Taumata o Panguru offers mandarin for all year 9 and 10 students, plus NCEA level 2 maths, and level 3 biology, all delivered from teachers outside of their school. And remember the school has fewer than 90 students. Meanwhile, Panguru staff teach Introduction to Te Reo Maori and NCEA level 1-3 Māori classes for the wider cluster.
Increasingly, Alexander-Bennett says, online education doesn’t need a dedicated video conferencing bridge. Instead students can just join a class via their own devices and free platforms like Google Hangouts and Zoom. That means in theory, students could be part of a lesson even if they were at home sick, away on holiday, or representing their school at a sports tournament.
The South Island online education joint cluster NetNZ has already moved to Google Hangouts, and this has given schools far more flexibility, says Jen Rodgers, principal of Cheviot Area School, 110km north of Christchurch.
“Online learning was becoming frustrating because the video conferencing bridge was getting cluttered and you couldn’t use the technology for two classes at the same time. Now we’ve got reliable broadband and all the classes are being run through Google Hangouts, so you can have multiple classes at the same time, and students can also “pop in” for a quick two-minute hangout with their teacher when it suits them. Often a face-to-face chat is really useful.”
Ease of access means online education is growing. There are now upwards of 160 New Zealand schools offering online courses - languages, sciences, business subjects and more. And there are more than 2000 students taking advantage of the online classes, normally when their school doesn’t offer a subject they want to do, because there are too few students to make up a class, or if they have a timetable clash.
“For example, a school in Katikati approached me recently because they want to get a Tongan and Samoan programme going for students who want to keep up their indigenous language. So their students will join our programme from next term.”
The ubiquity of devices, even in lower decile schools, is playing a huge part in levelling the playing field between urban and rural schools, Pomare-Peita says. Every senior student at Panguru has a phone, which means they can share their work with their teachers, and access the internet from home, even if they don’t have an internet connection. And that means no excuses about their assignments.
“I say to them ‘Gone are the days when you think you can’t access your work from home. If I can use my thumb to write long emails at home, so can you.’”
Another huge advantage of working online through a document sharing platform like Google, rather than using pen and paper, is that teachers can give comment and learning support quietly and confidentially, says Rodgers. And that’s particularly important with students who struggle with learning.
“I’ll walk into an NCEA classroom and there are kids with their laptops open and they are learning on Google Docs, and the teachers are giving them feedback or feedforward individually and privately via comments and messaging. No one else can hear what’s being said.”
“Students can share their work with me and ask for feedback or feedforward. I’ll send them a message digitally and say ‘Can you just come into my office,’ and they’ll look over my shoulder while I go through their writing,” says Pomare-Peita.
Has it made a difference to student achievement? Absolutely, she says.
“If you could see what I see; where the lights go on, and children see themselves as independent learners because they have built capacity as digital learners. It’s so satisfying. When I see the results for Māori boys, I know what success looks like. You can see it in their eyes when they can share work and ask for feedback... It’s a huge achievement.”