Will learning differently save education?

The country’s leading fearful party meets in conference this weekend. Delegates will be cajoled, cosseted and secreted from controversy. Perversely, this will hide some good news.

National is now not alone in secretiveness. Labour has been more open than National at recent annual conferences but this year at its regional conferences closed all but some set pieces because it was discussing how to elect its leader and an organisational revamp. The Greens used to be very open but this year were right up with National.

It seems that the more taxpayer money the bigger parties get the less they feel accountable. Their excuse: the media these days will overplay any tiny disturbance and voter perception of disunity is a killer. John Key used this rationale two years ago to put firmly in place a delegate who objected (in a secret session) to hermetic seclusion.

The puzzling result is that president Peter Goodfellow and his fearful organisers thereby entomb some positive news.

Two years ago some interesting infrastructure ideas got buried this way. This year Nikki Kaye’s push on digital learning gets that treatment, parked in a breakfast session. It requires an active imagination to figure out how the media could make a controversial feast of the topic.

Kaye has an inquiry running in Parliament’s education and science committee, which she chairs, framed around new learning methods and what some call “digital literacy”.

Ignore the awkward jargon. Kaye is on to something.

Work is changing in “developed” economies. Those without skills, or with the wrong or inadequate skills, will be condemned to low-earning service jobs or no jobs. As a submission from the Manukau Education Trust to Kaye’s committee put it, “even low-skilled kitchen hand jobs require applications online”.

Skills deficiencies compound the already large inequalities in earning power and wealth. It threatens future social cohesion and national economic performance.

The challenge is to get children learning more actively. That is also a challenge to teachers. For the long “tail” of failing children, a teacher imparting “knowledge” from front-of-class doesn’t work.

That was a motivation for Hekia Parata’s bungled first attempt to shift resources into lifting teacher quality through more training and performance measurement.

Kaye has got excited about the potential for digital innovation to engage children in learning.

There is an example: a “cluster” of nine decile one schools in east Auckland, the Manaiakalani project, which is equipping every pupil from year 5 to 13 with a “wireless-enabled laptop and the ability to access school-based internet services from the home and school”. Auckland University’s Woolf Fisher Research Centre is involved and a public-private partnership trust supports it.

It is to be underpinned from next year by the Ministry of Education’s “network for learning” which will run over the ultra-fast broadband infrastructure being rolled out through to 2016 to 97.7 per cent of schools. This “N4L”, the ministry says, “will provide both affordable, safe, ultra-fast internet access and a range of online content and centrally-procured services”.

The aim is to supplement teachers and textbooks, not replace them. Learning this way can — and apparently does — go on at any time, notably at home. Parents are getting engaged. Teachers are redeveloping their methods, including more collaboration.

Educators say this is not a magic fix. Sir Peter Gluckman’s submission to Kaye’s committee was mixed in its assessment of the merits of digitally-based learning — “the effect is complex and context-dependent” — but unequivocal that “teaching and pedagogy are going to have to be much more flexible to new modalities developed through these techniques”.

According to the Manaiakalani schools’ submission, “in effect students are learning at 1.5 times the normal rate” and the “tail” is shrinking, as measured in reading and writing standards testing. It says truancy has greatly reduced. The academic analysis also recorded an “acceleration” of reading and writing skills, though the average level (this is decile 1, remember) did not reach the national average.

Some at least of this improvement is due to the digital learning project. And the teachers are lifting their performance. “It could be a game-changer,” one academic says.

The ministry is about to replicate it in other selected schools.

Add this to the flexible use of classrooms and facilities in earthquake-hit Christchurch, involving in some cases different institutions and levels of education, which might turn into a model for more rational and effective arrangements through the country. Add also experiments elsewhere with variable learning spaces. A school (or university or polytechnic) is not the buildings. It is the learning.

This sort of thinking is a long way from the class size debacle that frightened National in May. Pity the party can hear and talk about it only in secret.