Virtual learning has been taking place in New Zealand for two decades and pioneered in our rural schools (Barbour, 2011; Roberts, 2010; Wenmoth, 1996).
“Small rural schools in New Zealand are in the forefront of changes in the application of information and communication technologies to teaching and learning. The emergence of rural school electronic networks is an important step towards the development of virtual classes in New Zealand, requiring new ways of organising teaching and learning. It is particularly appropriate to reconsider the pedagogy of the one- and two- teacher school in relation to the emerging virtual class. These small schools could have a new role in the information age and should, accordingly, be repositioned within the national educational system” (Stevens, 1996, p. 93).
This quote from Ken Stevens, made 20 years ago, has challenged me to consider how virtual learning has evolved over the last twenty years. How have rural schools been leading the way and benefiting from virtual learning? To what extent are we seeing new ways of teaching and learning online?
Virtual learning can be defined as learning that is facilitated by a range of technologies to enable communication and collaboration, where students and teachers are in distributed locations (Bolstad & Lin, 2009).
My research aims to examine how collaborative practice between schools working in virtual learning environments can alleviate the challenges small rural schools face for both students and teachers. These challenges could be in relation to access to professional support and a wider curriculum because of a school's small size and relative isolation. I will explore how collaborative online learning could enable innovative practice and new ways of thinking about the nature of schooling; while also exploring the challenges and potential pitfalls this may bring to schools. This research will be undertaken within the context of the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) Primary School network within which I work, and with the Principals who participate in VLN Primary programmes and projects.
The VLN Primary extends learning opportunities for students by enabling online learning between schools. Children have the choice to engage with a wide range of subjects that may not be available in their school. The VLN Primary provides professional development for teachers, student learning support, technical support and logistical coordination of online classes and programmes to schools around New Zealand (Virtual Learning Network Primary School, 2013). Learning is tailored to meet the needs of students, and make the most of the strengths of the schools. For example, through a reciprocal arrangement, the schools provide teachers in a subject in which they have a high level of expertise. Where it isn't possible for schools to provide that teacher, another teacher is contracted into the VLN Primary. Students and teachers use a range of synchronous and asynchronous tools that enable them to communicate and learn online together. The VLN Primary School is a registered Charitable Trust governed by its participating schools and supported, in part, by the Ministry of Education (Virtual Learning Network Primary School, 2016).
Research question or hypothesis
My main research question is:
What are the challenges small rural schools face and how can collaborating online provide benefits to learners, teachers and principals?
- What is the experience of teachers/principals with online collaboration across schools?
- What are their beliefs about learning online?
- What are some of the enablers and barriers to collaboration across schools?
- What are some of the enablers and barriers for teaching and learning online?
- How do teachers/principals think that teaching and learning online may change the nature of schooling in the future?
The conceptual context of this research will be situated within an interpretivist or constructivist framework. Within this framework reality is socially constructed, is context dependent (socially, culturally and historically) and can have multiple meanings depending on individuals’ perspectives. The stance of the researcher is not subjective as they are part of the research process, and involved in co-constructing meaning (Cohen et al., 2007; Mutch, 2013).
In addition to this there will be some elements of Critical Theory emerging as underlying the aims of the VLN Primary School are notions of social justice through providing greater equity and access to learning. Tait & O’Rourke, (2014, p.51) articulate the vision of the VLN Primary really well when they say: “our concept of social justice for each individual encompasses both the notion of equality rights as a ‘level playing field,’” and the “right to opportunities and support that enable each person to fully participate in all aspects of society—to get to the playing field in the first place.”
Semi-structured interviews will be held with a focus group of school Principals. Key themes will be drawn from the focus group discussion and followed up in more detail with individual interviews with no more than six of these Principals. I will use an iterative data analysis process whereby patterns and trends emerging at each stage of data collection are used to inform the next stages of data collection (Srivastava & Hopwood, 2009). Existing VLN Primary documents will be analysed to contribute to the body of knowledge developing. eResearch will be woven through the process not only because it makes sense due to the context but because it enables and amplifies research in ways that were not previously possible. eResearch will include online focus group discussions, the collection of data such as recorded lessons, conversations, screenshots, chat transcripts and Google analytic tracking of website usage and interactions. With this type of eResearch, ethical concerns of privacy are raised. Pardo & Siemens, (2014) identify four principles that should be addressed in regards to privacy of online data in educational institutions; they are transparency of processes, student control over data, security and access to data, and accountability and assessment of systems
Who would be interested in the outcome of your study?
Whanau and communities who have children learning in collaborative online communities would be interested in this study to gain a better understanding of their children’s online learning experiences. For those whanau and communities whose children are not learning in the virtual setting, this research may make them more aware of the potential benefits and challenges involved and cause them to consider supporting virtual learning in their own schools.
Schools (teachers, principals and Boards of Trustees), who are involved in collaborative online learning might be interested in the findings of this research for self-review and school improvement purposes; and schools that are not yet involved may be interested to see the possibilities and to learn from experiences of those who have pioneered the space.
Research findings will inform policy makers on current practice in collaborative online learning across schools and how we can realise the potential benefits of virtual learning for students, teachers and school communities with the New Zealand educational setting. This study aligns with Ministry of Education priorities in relation to collaborative practice and system changes within IES - Communities of Learning and the current Education Review - Taskforce on Regulations Affecting School Performance (2014). Particularly relevant is the proposed regulatory framework for online learning and potential formation of CoOLs (Communities of Online Learning). It also aligns to the Ministry of Education (2016), priorities as outlined in 'The Four Year Plan 2016 - 2020' for improving student centred pathways and championing 21st century practice in teaching and learning.
Barbour, M. K. (2011). Primary and secondary e-learning: Examining the process of achieving maturity. Christchurch, New Zealand: Distance Education Association of New Zealand. Retrieved February, 2015, from http://www.vln.school.nz/mod/file/download.php?file_guid=114023
Bolstad, R., & Lin, M. (2009). Students’ experiences of learning in virtual classrooms. Wellington: NZCER. Retrieved November, 2016, from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/system/files/students-experiences-learning-virtual-classrooms.pdf
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2007). Research methods in education (6th ed.). London ; New York: Routledge.
Ministry of Education. (2016) Ambitious for New Zealand: The Ministry of Education Four Year Plan 2016 - 2020. Retrieved November, 2016, from http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/4-Year-Plan-2016-WEB.pdf
Ministry of Education. (2016) Establishing a regulatory framework for online learning. Retrieved November, 2016, from http://www.education.govt.nz/ministry-of-education/legislation/the-education-update-amendment-bill/establishing-a-regulatory-framework-for-online-learning/
Mutch, C. (2013). Doing educational research: a practitioner’s guide to getting started. Wellington: NZCER.
Pardo, A., & Siemens, G. (2014). Ethical and privacy principles for learning analytics. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(3), 438–450. doi:10.1111/bjet.12152
Roberts, R. (2010). Increasing access for learners – The Virtual Learning Network. In V. Ham & D. Wenmoth (Eds.), e-Learnings: Implementing a national strategy for ICT in education, 1998-2010 (pp. 144-152). Christchurch, New Zealand: CORE Education Ltd.
Srivastava, P., & Hopwood, N. (2009). A practical iterative framework for qualitative data analysis. International journal of qualitative methods, 8(1), 76-84.
Stevens, K. (1996), The Technological Challenge to the Notion of Rurality in New Zealand Education - Repositioning the Small School. New Zealand Annual Review of Education, 5, 93 - 102.
Tait, A., & O’Rourke, J. (2014). Internationalization and Concepts of Social Justice: What Is to Be Done? In Online distance education: towards a research agenda. Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/books/120233/ebook/99Z_Zawacki-Richter_Anderson_2014-Online_Distance_Education.pdf
Taskforce on Regulations Affecting School Performance. (2014). Considering education regulation in New Zealand. Retrieved November, 2016, from http://www.minedu.govt.nz/theMinistry/EducationInitiatives/~/media/MinEdu/Files/TheMinistry/EducationInitiatives/Taskforce/TaskforceReport.pdf
Virtual Learning Network Primary School (2013). Charter & Strategic Plan 2013 - 2015 - Connecting New Zealand Schools for Enhanced Learning Outcomes. Retrieved November, 2016, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vLMmV1-1zJvMH3kL7z9VzyTvZYdtnRKIbQpUXVB5WEA/edit?usp=sharing
Virtual Learning Network Primary School (2016). Submission on the Education (Update) Amendment Bill. Retrieved November, 2016, from https://goo.gl/LHXttOWenmoth, D. (1996). Learning in the distributed classroom. SET Research Information for Teachers, 2(4). 1–4