What’s driving this?
There are three key drivers behind the escalation of virtual learning in our schools and education system:
- Advances in technology. The reach and reliability of online services is now at a point where the dream of ubiquitous access is becoming a reality. In addition, the interactive and immersive dimensions of emerging online learning environments provide a richer and more engaging experience for learners.
- Emphasis on learner agency and choice. The issues of an ever-widening curriculum, together with understandings about how learners learn, are increasingly challenging the structures of our traditional, face-to-face schooling system. Virtual learning approaches enable learners to exercise greater choice over what they learn, how they learn, when they learn, and who they learn with and from.
- Supply and demand issues. Possibly the greatest challenge for education systems around the world is the crisis that exists because there are not being enough teachers available to fill subject-specific roles in traditional schools. While we require a subject matter expert to be physically present in every school to work with classes of students, this is unlikely to be resolved. Additionally, many areas of the world are facing levels of demand for education that exceed their ability to build schools and provide teachers in the traditional way. This is the case even in New Zealand, in places like Auckland!
What examples of this can I see?
While virtual education may not be the answer to all these issues, it is certainly going to be a part of the answer, incorporated into and alongside other forms of educational provision.
In New Zealand, like other parts of the world, students who are unable or unwilling to attend a conventional school have been catered for by distance education providers such as Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (The Correspondence School). Increasingly, virtual learning approaches are being used here instead of the traditional print-based materials and occasional email exchange.
The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) Community has been active in New Zealand for over a decade, and has its roots going back into the early 1990s with the CASAtech, TOSItech and KAWM programmes, designed to cater for learners in rural and remote schools by enabling teachers in one school to work with cohorts of students from a variety of other schools.
Both these groups are likely to be taking advantage of the recently created provisions in the Education Act Update that legislates for the development of COOLs (Communities of Online Learning), opening opportunities for a wider range of providers and allowing learners greater choice regarding the subjects they want to take, and greater professional opportunities for teachers.
Further examples of the expansion of virtual learning can be seen in the widespread adoption of providers such as the Khan academy, that provides ‘mini-lessons’ in video format that can be viewed and reviewed by learners.
In the New Zealand context, LEARNZ has been offering virtual fieldtrips for students for nearly two decades, using online technologies to take students into experiences they would otherwise not be able to.
Consortia of universities such as Coursera and Udacity are now offering courses online – many of which are free or requiring payment only if you wish to have your work recognised for a credential.
On a more pragmatic level, collaborative online tools such as Google Docs and Office365 provide learners and teachers with opportunities for engagement in learning beyond the classroom.