Earlier this year Key is said to have asked his Ministers to come up with some new policy ideas, to deflect the criticism that they were a tired, exhausted, intellectually bankrupt government spinning its wheels and going nowhere. Maggie Barry’s ‘Predator Free New Zealand’ stunt was one. And now here’s Hekia Parata:
School-age students will be able to enrol in an accredited online learning provider instead of attending school, under new Government legislation.
The move has dismayed the primary school teachers’ union who say education is about learning to work and play with other children.
The radical change will see any registered school, tertiary provider such as a polytechnic or an approved body corporate be able to apply to be a “community of online learning” (COOL).
Any student of compulsory schooling age will be able to enrol in a COOL – and that provider will determine whether students will need to physically attend for all or some of the school day.
The Ministry of Education says this requirement may depend on the type of COOL.
There’s a scene in HBO’s Silicon Valley where an engineer is trying to explain his product to a group of ordinary people. He asks them, ‘What’d you have for breakfast today?’ Scrambled eggs,’ someone replies. ‘Scrambled eggs!’ he repeats, thrilled to finally be communicating his idea. ‘And what’s in the eggs? Electrons! Right? And we all know how electrons exist in orbitals. Multivalent states? No?
The idea of COOLs has been around in the tertiary sector for a LONG time now – although there they’re called MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – and I think it’s based on this type of reductive thinking. Universities (and now, schools) are really expensive. Huge capital investments. Huge staff costs. Huge overheads. But what do people do at these universities? Well, they learn. What do they learn? Information. And how do you transmit information? Electrons! So there is obviously no reason why those electrons can’t be transmitted digitally at super-low cost instead of via expensive lecture theaters and classrooms and lecturers. Right? No?
I was at a seminar on how MOOCs were going to ‘massively disrupt’ the entire tertiary education system over ‘the next twelve to eighteen months’ (this was back in, I think, 2006) and a computer scientist in the audience made a point that stuck with me. ‘If there was a killer app that was going to disrupt lecture and classroom based teaching you’d think it would have been the invention of Movable Type, back in the 15th Century. That drastically lowered the cost of information transfer. For the first time in history people could read a book at a lesser cost than attending a lecture. And yet the four hundred years since then people are spending more and more of their lives in lecture and classroom based teaching. Why is that?’
The guy giving the seminar did not know, and seemed amused at the sight of all these university staffers trying to justify their existence. Didn’t we see that the digital technology meant our entire sector was going to be wiped out in a matter of months? Why were we so blind? It’s still there, though, and the reason for that is that these institutions add value to the electrons they deliver in ways that online solutions don’t.
There are various theories about what the value-add is for tertiary institutes, but for schools an additional and critical value-add is that they function as child care. Obviously the teaching and socialisation is really important, but providing a safe place for kids to go while their parents work is a huge part of the package. Who is looking after kids who are studying at home through a COOL? What happens to the grades of COOL kids who study online instead of in the school environment? If they’re at home for part of the day and at school for others, how do they travel in between outside of normal commuting times? I think Parata would say it was too early to ask those questions. Actually she’d say something like, ‘We will work towards delivering robust partnership solutions going forwards.’ But these are really basic questions that should probably be answered before we spend money on this policy.