unCOOL

The Bill proposes to enable new partnerships between schools and online learning providers, and enable children and young people to access their education through online delivery.

Ministry of Education

The online schools would be known as Communities of Online Learning (COOL) and any school-aged child would be allowed to enrol in them instead of attending a regular school.

Radio New Zealand

Nothing associated with school should ever be called cool by adults.  It is the kiss of death, and a sure fire way to make young people disdain you.  It’s like saying good attendance is cool: the only people who nod their heads and think “hells yeah” are parents and the uncool kids.

This proposal is horrific, and raises a whole lot of questions.  Here are a few of those questions off the top of my head:

  • We already have an online provider in New Zealand called Te Kura (the Correspondence School), and it serves a very important function.  The Bill proposes that this school would now be designated a COOL.  Great.  But what other need is there that is not being met by Te Kura?
  • Any school-aged child would be allowed to enroll in a COOL?  Ok, but if you’re under 14 you’re not allowed to be home alone, so does that actually mean that only  any school-aged child who is being supervised would be able to enroll?
  • It is compulsory to attend school until you are 16.  People who don’t attend school get picked up by truancy officers and the police, and parents can be prosecuted.  Who will be monitoring attendance for on-line students and what will “attendance” count as?
  • Who is marking the work that on-line students do?  Who is creating the work?  Who is guiding and giving feedback to the students?  How is this moderated?  How exactly is plagiarism and authenticity going to be handled when there is no meaningful relationship between content provider and student?

But these points don’t even really express my real anxiety and my profound unease.  Actually, scrap “unease”: when I read articles like this about COOL it makes me feel like throwing in the towel.

Information technology has gained a hugely inflated position in the minds of many educational thinkers, and it is damaging.  All the rhetoric about 21st century learning is largely just that: rhetoric.  There are only two factors that I can see that information technology has changed for all organisations that deal in knowledge: (1) you don’t have to memorise content because you can just look it up, and (2) you can create digital outcomes as well as traditional hard copy outcomes.  That’s it.  Point one is not to be underestimated because it has signalled a big change in how schools work.  It really is redundant spending a lot of time drilling facts.  It is much more useful to teach skills.  These can be skills like how to write a paragraph, or do a formula in Maths, or they can skills like how to collaborate effectively.  I have learned from having BYOD in my classes that literally the. last. thing. you should do with devices is give one to every student and set them to work separately.  Here’s why:

  • It takes a great deal of self-control and motivation for students with their own devices to stay on track and not be distracted by everything else that the internet can offer, and
  • The students this impacts the most are the ones who are the most vulnerable.

If you are struggling, for whatever reason, with literacy then working online is hugely damaging.  Using the internet to tackle work is a demanding literacy task requiring intelligent decisions about search terms, and perceptive critical judgements  about the value of one source opposed to another.  This is before you even tackle the reading of an unmediated source which may have been written for an academic audience or a professional body.  With all of these barriers those students who are most in need of literacy support will turn to the other things that the internet offers be that social media or Youtube.

But beyond even that we have the problem of losing school’s other great function: social engineering.  School life teaches people a lot of lessons that have nothing to do with subjects.  In bad situations those lessons can be negative, but in most situations they teach people how to function as a member of society, how to become an independent person who has an individual identity, and – hopefully – that there are a lot of people in the world who have different views and values and how to cope with this in a constructive way.  Yes, a lot of schools kind of muddle through on this stuff, but that’s how society deals with these issues: it muddles through.

Technology, which brings people together virtually, also isolates people.  It is a paradox.  The more students we have online the less we are actually bringing people together.

When I think back on my decade of teaching almost everything I have actually achieved of any value at all has been through a long act of building relationships.  Those relationships have required patience in many cases.  Those relationships have been built on a thousand interactions, and hundreds of jokes and exchanges.  I have sat with students in tears, and laughed with students.  I have read their work with them and guided them over and over again.  We have explored ideas, and they have asked questions, and we have argued.

What kind of society is it that we want?  What is it that we actually value?  Don’t talk to me about changing global environments, talk to me about what it is we value in our communities.  In schools we can forge something together that is meaningful and takes time and is messy, and we can do that together.  This alternative future that is being promoted seems to be about other things.  It never mentions our humanity and our community.  It talks about the new, and the flexible, and choice and – sometimes explicitly, but often implicitly – the individual, as if the individual is something that all of us should selfishly undertake to promote above all other things.  We can go down that path, and we can use technology to do it.  We can have everything atomised to serve everyone’s need to get ahead and gain the best personal outcome.  In that world schools are barriers I suppose and teachers are potential impediments for they must also help others.

It feels sometimes like we are all in a hurry to stay competitive in the rush to create a world that none of us particularly wants to live in.  Or we could not.  We could stop.  We could listen to each other, and learn from each other, and build trust over time.  Technology which always holds the promise of liberation often attempts to enslave us in new ways.  Come, sit with me awhile.  Let’s learn together, face to face, and fold the screens down.