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Virtual Learning

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Last updated by Glen


Why is this important?

Education in the 21st Century will undoubtedly be different from what we experienced in the 20th Century. The differences are likely to be evident in all areas, including what is being learned, how it is being learned, as well as when and where learning takes place. These changes will be driven by, and reflective of a range of factors, including developments in technology, the increased emphasis on student choice and autonomy, increasingly diverse cultural and social needs of students and communities.

Schools are increasingly under pressure to respond to these influences, to ensure that they remain relevant in the new millennium, and are able to meet students’ and society’s needs. While there is no set answer to what is required, it is clear that a greater degree of collaboration and cooperation between and among schools will be essential.

The Ministry of Education is currently reviewing and developing their policies in a range of areas in an effort to support and assist schools in making choices about change. This handbook is a part of the process of policy development and with it comes the opportunity to contribute to this policy development through participation in the online forums associated with the online version of this handbook.


The original LCO handbook was created in 20021 as a guide for rural secondary schools in New Zealand that were exploring the use of video conferencing as a means of expanding access to course options for students. It was intended to provide a structured approach to the process of establishing the necessary environment within the school, and to provide practical advice and guidance in specific areas.

The handbook was reviewed in 2005 by members of the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) community, after the network had grown and the scope of what was being provided began to expand - this included courses from tertiary institutions and offerings for some primary schools.

This revision broadens the scope even further, recognising that the environment for online learning is providing significant opportunities for all schools, in terms of who participates, what is provided, and how it is delivered. In addition, this handbook is supplemented by an online environment providing access to a rich collection of resources, case studies and forums for the exchange of ideas and advice.

The Virtual Learning Network

During the late 1990s and early 2000s clusters of schools began to emerge in different parts of New Zealand. Driven by the need to provide access to wider curriculum choices for their students, these schools found ways of sharing classes and teachers between them, connected first by audio-graphics technologies and then video conferencing.
Most of these clusters were geographically defined, located in rural and provincial parts of New Zealand. Most combined regular online links with periodic face-to-face visits and exchanges – creating a ‘blended’ approach to learning
for students.
By the early 2000s some of the clusters began to explore sharing courses and classes between clusters where those courses couldn’t be provided for within the cluster itself. It became clear that there would be significant benefit in providing some sort of ‘brokerage’ service that enabled schools and clusters to explore and access courses available available in other clusters across the country, and act as an ‘introduction service’ to begin the process of being able to access some of these courses.

So was born the Virtual Learning Network (VLN), initially providing a course brokerage and scheduling service to schools, but soon expanding to provide support and professional development opportunities for online teachers, and the inclusion of an ever- increasing range of courses and programmes from a range of providers.

The strength of the VLN is the community that ‘owns’ and supports it. The VLN can be described as a form of educational co-operative, where the members are those who help guide and influence its development. This initiative was greatly enhanced in 2008 with two years of financial and mentoring support from the Ministry of Education for the establishment of full-time e-Principal positions.

These were provided to already established clusters involved in the VLN to work together as a national group to take responsibility and leadership for, not only their own clusters, but for providing leadership in the VLN. Since 2010, when the funding from the Ministry for these positions finished, schools have been required to fund these positions through a range of funding models.

Ultra-fast Broadband

Telecommunications technologies remain the key enabler of the networked school vision. In the early days of audio-graphics, connections were made through existing telephone lines – usually requiring two lines - one for the audio, and the other for the graphical interface. With video conferencing came the demand for more bandwidth. This was a key driver for project PROBE3, providing broadband to every school in the country, mostly through an ADSL4 line. Video conferencing equipment used was optimized for this speed of connection, providing an adequate level of service to be able to conduct online lessons.
The Government’s plans to roll out fibre across New Zealand include a commitment to provide ultra-fast broadband access to 97% of New Zealand schools by 2016. The remainder in regions too remote for fibre will receive improved broadband speeds via satellite or point to point wireless.

Ultra-fast broadband will provide the opportunity for schools to use next generation services such as high definition (HD) video conferencing and streaming TV. It will also allow learners to create and share video and multi-media resources across the network in real time.

In a number of urban areas around New Zealand, fibre networks have already been established using this technology – for example Auckland’s North Shore, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch. These urban fibre networks connect schools and other education institutions, allowing participating schools to access a range of online services and resources not previously available. These early adopters are already exploring the benefits of collaborating online, including expanded course options for students, and opportunities for teachers to share their expertise in specialist areas.

Such developments will see the concepts and practices of the VLN grow and expand so that they embrace all schools in New Zealand, not just those in rural and provincial areas. In addition, the ability to connect at ultra-fast speeds means that schools in NZ will be able to access and participate meaningfully in a range of international learning opportunities.

The age of the networked school has arrived.

In an era where schools are finding themselves having to respond to demands of student choice and personalisation, the rapid expansion in the adoption and use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), and the constraints of resources, staffing and physical space, there is a need to think more expansively about how schools might operate into the future. Our existing structures are becoming increasingly challenged as access to knowledge becomes more ubiquitous, and the traditional roles of teachers and schools are questioned. Students (and their parents/whanau), in their quest to gain access to the learning experiences that matter for them, are caught in the tension between staying at their local school where they can remain linked with their local community and friends, or moving to a school where they might be able to access programmes more suited to their needs.

The phenomenon of virtual learning is being embraced in a number of countries around the world as a part of the solution. The concept is simple – the place students are located can be different from the place where the learning is provided. For those in school, the schools remain an important physical ‘home’ for the student, a place where social activity is promoted, and students are given access to the support and resources they require to help them learn – but their actual learning (i.e. their subjects or courses) may be provided from a range of places outside the school. We’ve accepted this for nearly a century with Correspondence School courses – whether they are provided to students in remote locations learning from their kitchen table, or those in schools who are unable to access a particular course or courses they need.

Virtual learning is the term now used to describe this separation of place of learning from the source of the instruction or learning. Where, in the past, we may have thought of this as a separate part of the education system, there is an increasing convergence that will eventually see virtual learning considered a natural part of what schools are about.

Virtual learning is one of the activities that take place within a network of schools. The term networked school describes an institution that exists as an independent entity, yet is integrally linked with other schools and agencies in order to provide the services
and programmes that meet its learners’ needs. Digital technologies play a key part in the development of networked schools, creating a new, rich networked learning environment for students - gradually transforming the nature of schooling.

The diagram below illustrates the way in which things have changed and are likely to change in the future.



As schools grapple with the implications of this convergence of teaching and learning paradigms, new opportunities emerge that will enable them to re-examine the ways in which they provide educational programmes for their students. Through the planned and strategic use of ICT, teachers, and students can begin to experience being part of a wider learning community, where access to learning opportunities is not limited by the time and place-bound availability of a teacher or resources.
The table on the following page expands on the characteristics of each phase in the development.

Feature comparison in education paradigms