Friday, 26 August 2016

COOL schools option: a long term view of the potential political agenda


The Minister of Education has announced that Communities of Online Learning (COOLs) will become a feature of the compulsory education landscape in New Zealand. Apart form this being yet another ramping up of the privatisation of our education system, it reminds me of a prescient short story from way last century. I'll refer to that in a moment. First, here are some snippets of bonhomie from those in political power here: "Mr Seymour hopes it'll involve foreign-based providers as well" Mr Seymour is the one and only ACT party member of parliament, representing the hard core of neo-liberalism activism in the country. His presence makes the National Party's work in chipping away at dismantling our system for private enterprise look benign. He also says "It'll replace going to a traditional school, and a brilliant idea."

Claire Amos sees a rosy future for the idea - and good on her for such a positive spin. She has a firm grasp of the educative possibilities. Her post outlines some possibilities where learning is enhanced by the option - and why shouldn't it be? In the right hands, it can be a strong and positive adjunct to deliberate acts of teaching and learning. When students are ill - or even teachers- then learning need not be as disrupted as it might be currently. It can extend students and provide options for accounting for and creating new knowledge. However, I think there is more afoot.

The politics perhaps? 

Hekia Parata as Minister, meanwhile, is talking up this innovation by saying it provides existing schools with opportunities to enhance current practices and offer students greater variety in their learning. But what if future governments also keen on privatising education wanted to completely dismantle public schools and make then less than viable in the face of private companies taking the lion's share of public money?  Derek Wenmouth issues a caution in his very good blog post on the issue when he talks of the apparent influences on the regulation regime that might eventuate here to police this change.

We might even find ourselves in the position Miss Boltz found herself in the satirical (and scarily prescient) short story by Lloyd Biggles Jr And Madly Teach in a collection called A Galaxy of Strangers (1957 but out of print) let me explain:

In this sci fi story (well it was futuristic in 1957), Miss Boltz comes back to Earth after teaching 'overseas ' in Mars for a while. There, she'd had classes full of kids, and taught them English - books, talking, arguing ideas, writing and building connections. Back on Earth, she needs to keep teaching, so goes along to find out what her new appointment was. After all, she had been teaching for 25 years, loved it, and was respected for her expertise. The Deputy Superintendent of tSecondary Education however, suggests she immediately retire because teaching is a "young person's profession". Mr Wilbings goes on to tell her that there had been a 'revolution in education" and that for 5 hours teaching a week, she would need forty hours preparation. There would be 40,000 students who attended class by watching her on television. The success of her teaching would be measured by a fortnightly Trendex rating, but the only thing students had to do was to register.  Assessments, feedback and any kind of communication with students other than pushing material to them, was frowned on.

On her way to being shown how to use the tv studio, she wonders to the engineer who shows her the controls for broadcasting herself, how she is to teach 40,000 students written and spoken English without ever hearing them speak or see their writing. A few weeks later she meets another teacher, who explains, in response to a similar wondering that
Let's not be dragging in abstractions like progress... The New Education looks at it this way: We expose the child to the proper subject matter. The exposure takes place in his own home, which is the most natural environment for him. He will absorb whatever his individual capacity permits, and more than that we have no right to expect... What the New Education strives for is the technique that has made advertising such an important factor in our economy. Hold people's attention, make them buy in spite of themselves. Or hold the student's attention and make him learn whether he wants to or not" (p. 9).  
Miss Boltz protests that students would not learn social values, to which the other teacher replies
"On the other hand the school has no discipline problems. No extra curricular activities to supervise. No problem of transporting children to school and home again.... The most potent factor in this philosophy of the New's money...we save a fortune on teachers' salaries... The bright kids will learn no matter how badly they're taught and that's all our civilisation needs - a few bright people to build a lot of bright machines...Anyway, in the not too distant future there won't be any teachers. Central District is experimenting with filmed classes. Take a good teacher, film a year of his work and you don;t need a teacher any longer. You just run the films..."(pp. 9-10)
The story shows how the Trendex works to 'judge' the success of the teacher through how many students are watching, but the quality is not a factor. So, the story descries a variety of scenarios of 'teachers' doing a slow striptease to "all you cats and toms out there" to explain the predicate in English, ostensibly to students who are US 11th Grade. Another teacher juggles, and another draws caricatures while supposedly teaching history. All for Trendex ratings. Forget the pedagogy or the challenge in learning.

I won't tell you the rest of the story - it's worth reading for the social and educational commentary it makes. It also highlights a point about those who make educational policy need to speak to those in the educational trenches - teachers and teacher educators - in terms of knowing about successful learning and what is needed for developing skilful, knowledgeable, socially adept and critical citizens. As a teacher educator for example, educational researcher and someone with 20 years' experience in secondary schools, I  actually know what I'm talking about. I'm not unusual as a teacher educator. People like me should not be ignored in the equation, for we have a wider view than the site of one school and we make it our business to keep an eye on wider implications of policies.

And then there's the potential problem of kids at home by themselves. Hands up, those who want to supervise the online learning of their own kids every day of the week from home? Consider what's implicated in this little bon mot on the MOE website about Cool Schools:
Who will be responsible for the supervision of a student enrolled in a COOL?
Enrolling COOLs and schools will be responsible for ascertaining and agreeing with parents and caregivers, about the supervision arrangements of students enrolled. In all cases where a student is accessing online learning, the enrolling school or COOL will have a policy that clearly states the supervisory responsibilities of the enroller and students’ parents.
So how might this work? What guidelines will be in place for the 'enroller' to create a fit-for-purpose policy with actual teeth? Will it be fair? Will it expect a staff member to pop in every day (if in an urban area - rural might be more complex) to check on progress (eg by video feed or actual physical presence)? A computer's camera being timed to take regular pics to prove a student is online? Or Analytics to check frequency and time spent? Or both? Is this potentially the equivalent of a GPS ankle bracelet for students? Or will the expectation be that students actually do this in a school so that surveillance can be more easily achieved?

As far as teachers and caregivers are concerned, what new learning might they need to make this work successfully? What does it imply for households' technological equipment and wifi needs? Who will be expected to supply it?


  1. If you're school curriculums are all set around knowledge this makes perfect sense. The real issue is less about technology and where the educating happens, but in our missed opportunity with education to impart the really important curricula on our kids; problem solving, empathy, communication - the skills our kids of the future need. Things like maths, science and english should be context rather than subjects... until we get that right, there makes no real sense in splitting away the only real learning school gives - social interaction and an understanding of popularity...

  2. Hi Nigel, thank you for your comment. I agree- when concepts and ideas occur inside contexts that make sense of these complex things, kids 'get it'. Students have told me so - they appreciate opportunities to collaborate on tasks by pulling learning from multiple subject areas to create solutions that become satisfying end points.