Keeping our cool about COOLs (without drinking the COOL aid)

Yesterday the government (as part of a wider announcement around updating the Education Act, announced they are to "Establish a future focused regulatory framework for online learning", which is unpacked as "A new framework for correspondence education (modernised to refer to “online learning”) to future-proof the Act, and enable students to study online as an alternative to, or alongside, face-to-face education. The new framework enables new providers to enter the market, as accredited Communities of Online Learning (COOLs)." I can understand that this may have come as a surprise, and that in and of itself makes people nervous, not to mention the use of the term "market", what I don't understand is the nearly universal "Chicken Little" response which has seen nearly all peak bodies, politicians and many media outlets declare that "the sky is falling!".

Personally my first instinct was - awesome! I mean, imagine the possibilities! Imagine how we might reimagine schooling? Imagine the way we could genuinely personalise learning? Imagine how we might build on the already successful models of online learning that we tap into through HarbourNet or NZNET and the virtual learning network? Imagine how we might build on the (fabulous) evolving model of correspondence learning already available through Te Kura? Imagine how might we stretch COLs and collaborative models of delivering education to ensure all students from Cape Reinga to Stewart Island all had access to the very best subject specialists, that all schools no matter how small could offer their learners a rich diversity of subjects? Imagine how we could leverage this opportunity to provide genuine, next level, learner agency? Imagine how we might let students learn how and when they wanted or needed. And of course we will also need to imagine how might we do all of this without losing what we know is at the heart of effective learning. How we can take this bold leap into the future and still ensure our young people are socialised and experience a sense of community? How might we respond and take advantage of the flexibility that technology affords us and still build relationships between educator and learner?

However the more I looked across the papers, the more lonely I felt. Through nearly every media outlet and every social media platform all I felt I heard and read was shock and horror and instant assumptions (even before we had any detail) about what what we would lose and what agendas were really at play here. Are we really so shocked that online schooling is going to be a reality sooner rather than later? Personally I'm shocked we aren't there already. Are we really so cynical that we can't even pause long enough to consider the possibilities before launching into scaremongering diatribe that would suggest the end is nigh and we are all going to hell in a hand basket?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think people are wrong to be nervous, especially when it felt like a bolt out of the blue and we currently have so little detail (note there is now more info available here). As with everything, the devil will be the detail. This policy will need to enacted incredibly carefully and slowly to ensure that any new models complement or build on our current models. Just like any learning environment, real or virtual, the output will be directly related to the quality of the input - bring on those registered teachers and curriculum experts! There will be massive fish hooks to work through, but man isn't it awesome we can genuinely explore these options...and only sixteen years in to the 21st Century!

Goddam. I can't wait to run my school-less COOL from my driverless car!

But seriously, I am going to stay excited, I am going to put on my Pollyanna pants and positively pursue the possibilities of COOLs...whilst ensuring I don't "drink the COOL aid"". I am going to dive deep into any info that gets published, I am going ask questions, I am going to challenge the stuff I am concerned about whilst also thinking long and hard about how we might use this development to further support personalisation, learner agency and redefine what we think of as "school". I am going to challenge myself to embrace change in the hope that we might just evolve education at a rate that reflects the rate of the evolution of the society I live in. I am going to challenge myself to not simply cling on to the rose-coloured memory of the schooling and school that I might have loved and excelled in, in the past. I am going to do this because, quite simply, it is not about me and what I am comfortable with, and it is not about what I know to be true from past experience. It is is about being open to what could be and what could take us a step closer to ensuring we have a wide variety of models of schooling that might better meet the needs of the wide variety of young people we are tasked with looking after.

I am going to close this blogpost with an excerpt from a post I wrote in December 2013, this post was originally written as part of a 'Thoughts on the future of EdTech' blog series on the Ed Personnel Blog. I can't help thinking, to continue the poultry theme, that the chickens may just be coming home to roost a little sooner than we might have imagined...

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
- Jack Welch

I believe that the future of EdTech will actually facilitate something even more exciting - the partial dissolution of what we have come to know as “school”. I suspect that if schools continue to struggle to evolve and to leverage the power of EdTech effectively and cannot change at a rate that mirrors the rate of change in wider society we will begin to see a society that questions the relevance of such a formal and seemingly inflexible structure. In fact, it is possible that we could see the whole notion of school questioned and the relevance of formal education challenged as future generations refuse to accept the glacial pace of change and instead harness the powers of EdTech to form something akin to connected home-schooling community. You only need look at the global proliferation of democratic schools and rising profile of hackschooling to get a sense that this shift has already begun. And whilst democratic schools, for the most part, still base themselves in what we might recognise as a school, I do wonder if the ubiquity and autonomy that EdTech affords learners, we may see that change as well.

The future of EdTech is one of disruption, democratization and for some, complete dissonance.

Before you dismiss this as little more than a pedagogical fantasy, I would suggest that you at least stop to consider the future of EdTech as something more than the status quo on steroids and I implore you recognise that what is really exciting is not the EdTech at all, but rather how EdTech might help to redefine what “an education” might look like in the not distant future.

Genuinely keen to hear your thoughts on this issue!

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  1. It's refreshing to hear a positive take on COOL. Reactive chicken responses are tiresome and I'm looking forward to more educaters talking about the possibilities (not just the pitfalls).

  2. I have two questions in regards to this new proposal:

    1. Can education be a for-profit enterprise and still maintain equity of access to quality learning for all students in NZ? Why should we settle for anything less than that?

    2. How will the isolation of online learning affect students' mental wellbeing when they are still developing their prefrontal cortex and we know how a strong sense of community and belonging impacts learning?

    The strides that the education sector has made in adopting human-centred approaches such as design thinking and maker space could be seriously undermined. These tap into the strengths of collaborative creativity that are not easy to develop nor maintain in online environments.

    Ruth Richardson, in her speech 'A Better Way' (2003, exulted the privatisation of health and education: "When the consumer of health or education services has choice and the provider is incentivised to be efficient, it costs less and the consumer gets more."

    Sounds great, except that I have yet to see how any physical applications of this model have benefitted the vast majority of tax payers/consumers (except shareholders), added quality to the health and education services or improved equity of access to all New Zealanders. There has been been no increase in democratisation through this ideology. The consumer with the ability to pay for the 'choice' is the only one that can have it and the rest get no choice.

    The vast majority of current models of online schools have been an abject failure for their inability to address the profit before quality mentality.

    I would hate to see public education become the next corporate welfare sector.

    As much as I love EdTech, this proposal comes with a huge caution considering both the current ideology driving it (which sounds great but hasn't delivered) and the way it has been implemented overseas. By all means, let's keep an open mind but at the same time, let's keep our eyes wide open and judicious inquiry active. Failure to do so could be very costly for generations to come.

    1. Yes, I can see the stars but I congratulate Ximena A for raising the provisos I have witnessed have been the result of improperly funded or human resourced initiatives. Of course we can be positive (and underdressed) and challenge the choice alone justification for depriving others of their ability to have the same range of them.
      Key is the cluster of experts who can provide the resources that will not mean everyone inventing their own content - THE key insufficiency in making IT available to mainstream teachers ime, flipped or actual classes. Seconding for two year on higher salary for teams of SMEs is the way to make this work ie be truly accessible to all, a true choice for all.

  3. To answer your second question Ximena A - you are demonstrating assumptions around what effective online learning looks like. It is not an isolating, isolated activity. It is not people interacting with swathes of content. Effective online learning is about connecting people and their ideas. I would suggest there is more sense of community in the online courses I have run than in most (and I say most not all) classrooms I see. This is because as a teacher, you need to make an ongoing commitment to building community to ensure there are connections between students. This doesn't often happen in face to face classes where the teacher assumes it will happen. Or perhaps doesn't see it as important. The negative reaction around online learning has been very disappointing and demonstrates how far many educators have to go before the penny drops - the internet is transformational technology. It is not an add on.

  4. I am all for flexibility of learning contexts, and I believe we are only at the beginning of this road to providing choice in how we, as a society access learning.

    As an informtion literacy and research specialist, I worry about the level of skills our students have to be able to effectively and successfully navigate independent online learning.

    Also, having participated in MOOCs and self-paced courses, I realise there is a much greater level of motivation and commitment required than in a more traditional learning model and it can also feel like you are working in a vaccuum.

    There needs to be consideration made to just because a student can access learning online, is that in fact the right mode of learning for them.

    I look forward to seeing how this pans out.

  5. Thanks Claire for the positive perspective and I agree Darren - our kaupapa in the Volcanics eLearning Community is about delivering connected, responsive learning opportunities. These in fact remove the isolation in some of our schools.

  6. I think I have managed to channel my exact thoughts into your head on this topic, Claire. Very excited. So many negative reactions.

  7. Always enjoy your perspective, Claire. Any thoughts about private enterprise entering the provider field?

  8. I have a feeling 'the sky is falling' mentality comes from lack of knowledge. Information is king, and once we recognise that handwriting isn't the only way to encode metacognitive processes and that social learning can happen online through formal and informal networks, then we'd be better equipped to envision 'blue skies' just like you've written here Claire. So thank you for taking the time to do so. Funny, I was just reading, "Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks." in, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by George Siemens @

  9. Love this korero Clair! We discussed this at Unitec Hawkes Bay this week. Felt like the sky was falling alright! Challenged everyone to put an open mindset perspective onto it, boy oh boy felt the love from everyone...... With the rate tech is transforming education "online" can be like the Holodeck on the Starship Enterprise soon and more! Their are opportunities here. "Ma te huruhuru Ka rere te Manu"


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