The deeper importance of Nikki Kaye's e-learning

National MP Nikki Kaye’s parliamentary education and science committee, which she chairs, will report soon on “e-learning”. Sounds technofreakish rather than educational. Actually, the context is deep historical change.

One dimension of e-learning is using computer and internet technology as learning mechanisms — conveying information, stimulating interest and engagement and taking learning beyond the classroom.

That implies a paradigm shift in teaching from imparting knowledge with authority to a teacher being what one submitter to the committee called a “navigator” for and with pupils and students into and through a global system.

It implies getting out of box-classrooms into multi-functional spaces, illustrated in a video submission by Tawa intermediate pupils. Epsom Girls Grammar School and other schools made that point in prose.

It also implies ensuring there is real — and really fast — wireless broadband, not just in schools but through surrounding neighbourhoods, so pupils and students can connect and learn anywhere, anytime — which they do when they can, as the remarkable decile 1-3 Manaiakalani project has shown. One hitch: the way ultra-fast broadband is being rolled out may be digging a deeper rich-poor digital divide.

The second dimension is that e-learning is not just a new form of book.

Using netbooks, laptops, iPads and whatever barely imaginable device comes next brings some change in cognitive development, though researchers are unsure exactly what that change is and exactly what the effect is on learning capacity. Epsom Girls found differences of ease with the technology between its younger and older students.

Chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, drawing on British and other studies, told Kaye’s committee that “the effect of digital technology on learning, brain development and behaviour is complex and context-dependent”.

What is not in dispute is that it widens learners’ sources of information. Sir Peter: “In many ways the future will need a very different type of teacher, one who can assist the student to interpret information coming from sources beyond the teacher’s control”, that is, “to act as intermediaries between the student and the world of knowledge”.

That “world of knowledge” is another e-learning dimension. Learners aren’t stuck with a teacher or a school — or even a country.

World best practice and a world of diversity are accessible online. Global-leading universities now offer courses online and universities elsewhere are starting to pick them up. A degree from Otago University might logically incorporate credits from a range of top institutions, adding weight to the qualification. The same goes for schools.

The baby-boomer mind boggles. So does the generation X mind. Even the generation Y mind might be a bit uncomfortable. Against this backdrop, the baby-boomer and generation-X cabinet’s love affair with “standards” feels quaint.

In fact, some research suggests standards and qualifications are less important to future success than “non-cognitive capacity”: persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence — as outlined in a New York Times review in August of Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”, a book which tracked rich and poor children through school into adult life.

Next, factor into non-cognitive capacity and the technologically and globally changing learning systems the recent and future rapid tightening of global interdependency and interconnectedness (which relegates much of the Trans-Pacific Partnership debate also to the quaint box). That puts the e-learning debate in a wider, and historical, frame.

Work is changing in nature and quality — and earning capacity — as a result of step-changes in technology and global relocation of jobs.

A society wanting to stay materially prosperous and cohesive now needs to get all of its people educated to a modern level and quality.

The parallel for the 2010s to 2030s might be the period from the late nineteenth century period when to keep up with changing technology and organisation of work advanced countries recognised that school education had to be universal.

We may now be at the point where education must not only be universal but universally enabling to fit a qualitatively very different global economy.

If so, that would give Kaye’s committee’s report an importance far beyond the technology. For the report to measure up it will need, first, other parties’ buy-in, then also to be forward-thinking, imaginative and ambitious in the work programme it recommends. Will it demand heavy lifting from researchers and policy developers and, from the cabinet, urgency to get that heavy lifting done and resources to build the requisite educational curriculum, skills and infrastructure?

Hekia Parata backs Kaye. If Kaye has got a real shift from her committee, how the cabinet responds will be the Parata’s big test, far bigger than class sizes and Christchurch amalgamations.