Digital learning – coming, ready or not

Key points Ultrafast broadband and the Network for Learning are transforming the classroom. Teachers need more professional development to make it work. Academics are concerned that the implications of this…

Key points

  • Ultrafast broadband and the Network for Learning are transforming the classroom.
  • Teachers need more professional development to make it work.
  • Academics are concerned that the implications of this latest “fashion”, particularly for the curriculum, haven’t been thought through.

Our students are becoming part of a massive educational experiment.Digital learning is transforming the very nature of the teacher-student relationship. Yet not everyone agrees that New Zealand schools should embrace technology unquestioningly. Progress is happening thick and fast on the ground with the infrastructure. The government is spending $200m connecting 98 percent of schools to ultrafast broadband and providing wireless access to the rest.

By April of this year, 1300 schools had participated in SNUP  (School Network Upgrade Project), says Liz Stevenson, Project Leader Blended eLearning, Core Education Limited. The Ministry of Education’s Network for Learning (N4L) project to transform schools to “technology-based learning environments” appears to be making progress in bringing content and services to schools” despite delays. It also seems likely it will be used a tool to drive National Standards and other competition-based policies.


But there is no doubt we’re still on the nursery slopes of digital learning . Schools have hurdles to overcome, such as ICT procurement issues, affordability, standardised approaches across the sector, and professional development opportunities. In fact, if there is a roadblock in New Zealand, it may be the lack of professional development for teachers as much as socio-economic or infrastructure blockages.

Not enough is being spent on professional development currently, said one school principal who didn’t want to be named. She says that ICT professional learning contracts are targeting lower decile schools.
Smaller schools that don’t fall into that camp, but need professional development or to attend conferences such as ULearn simply can’t afford it, the principal says. “If you want to improve (your knowledge of digital learning) you would have to hope that there is another teacher in your school who knows more than you do.”

One way forward

What’s more the infrastructure, pedagogy and policy of digital learning are huge topics for schools and teachers to take on board and sometimes taking one baby step opens up six more, and they give up.
One way forward, according to N4L’s education sector lead Carolyn Stuart, is for teachers and principals to start using technology more themselves to improve their understanding. “The problem with any technology learning is you don’t get it unless you use it. And unless you use it you don’t get it.”

Stevenson says teachers who don’t have access to ICT professional development can access wide-ranging e-learning resources through Enabling e-Learning and also the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) e-learning community. At the same time, not everyone agrees that the rapidly evolving digital classroom where every child has their own device is the answer to 21st century education.

A giant experiment

Schools are trialling new initiatives” some more than others. The trouble is it’s not clear which models will be successful: our students may be part of a massive educational experiment. Certainly there is a growing body of thought that it’s a myth that technology is going to be the be-all and end-all.

Professor Mark Brown director, National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University, argues that technology and its role in our schools needs to be better understood. Brown says the question that concerns him revolves around: “What is it we are wanting digital education to do for us? How do we want this technology to serve the education system? “Too often we are hearing about how technology is driving changes to the nature of the education curriculum. I do not think we are having deep conversations about what that education system might look like.”

Lacking vision

Brown says that if there is an economic imperative that school leavers need to become digitally literate then in comparison to other countries New Zealand lacks the strategic and visionary investment needed.
There are also arguments that BYOD (bring your own device) creates a digital divide. Even so there are schools in lower decile areas that have found ways around the problem. For example, in the Manaiakalani Project which spans nine decile one schools every child has been supplied with a netbook that the families are paying off at $3.50 a week.

There are other projects in New Zealand to provide access to technology in struggling communities. These include the Computer in Homes programme, which will still support 600 families next year. If access to technology isn’t the main problem, it’s how that technology is contextualised, says professor Stuart McNaughton of the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Auckland. McNaughton is closely involved in the Manaiakalani project.

The curriculum challenge

“The pressing challenge at the moment is to understand how to design digital classrooms, e-learning and teaching in ways that meet the national curriculum goals. We don’t know how to do that properly at a national level,” says McNaughton. “Innovations such as Manaiakalani are bravely trying to figure this out.”
With access to technology improving rapidly, the challenge, says Stuart, will be for the pedagogy and policy to keep up.

There are plenty of voices calling for more research to be done before we jump boots and all into digital learning. Professor Howard Lee, head of the School of Educational Studies at Massey University, and Professor Gregory Lee, education historian Canterbury University, believe that we may not be questioning the march of technology sufficiently. With every generation new myths or “fads and fashions” appear in New Zealand’s education policy, the professors wrote in a letter to Education Aotearoa.
“(One) concern we have rests with the¦ assumption that the provision of, and emphasis on, ICT in schools means, ipso facto, that all learners will receive a high quality education.

Is the tool itself enough?

“In this context there is an attempt to establish a direct connection between provision and outcomes. It may turn out that learning and teaching are enhanced by such technology in some way(s), but a strong case needs to be made for this as opposed to a bold declaration that this will occur.”
A review of literature relating to e-learning and its implications” albeit in 2010 – by Noeline Wright found that although there was much in the way of literature, there was a relatively small amount of actual evidence about its relationship to improved educational and life chances for students. In the report, for the Ministry of Education, Wright said that the provision of a tool isn’t enough for effective learning.

However, research done in India, and elsewhere  by educational scientist and winner of the 2013 TED Prize Sugata Mitra hints at the potential of digital learning. Professor Mitra  installed hole in the wall computers in various parts of India and watched the children teach themselves” often in a language they didn’t understand. One key feature of Mitra’s research is that the children were in groups around computers, not learning on their own.

In Gateshead in the UK, Mitra replicated the hole-in-the-wall computer experiment in the classroom by giving a group of 10-year-old children GCSE questions, which they wouldn’t usually have to sit until six years later. The children answered the questions within 20-40 minutes with an average score of 76%. Two months later they were tested again and had perfect recall of the answers, scoring just as highly. Mitra says that after the original sessions the children were interested and continued to Google the subject. This suggests digital learning can be a successful experiment, it’s just not clear that that’s what happening in New Zealand.