Deconstructing Michael: Consistency is the key

I have finally returned to Michael Barbour’s analysis of the Virtual Learning Network (VLN), completed last year.  It you haven’t read it, then I recommend you do so (click here), especially if you have an interest in the future of the VLN (or CantaNet).  It is a very accessible read.

In this post we have a quick look at his discussion around the lack of consistency across the VLN.

While there is some  consistency in terms of activities (for example, almost all of the e-learning clusters provide distance education offerings to their students), there is little consistency of vision between each of the clusters. This lack of consistency has hindered any national development of virtual learning practice of policy in New Zealand. Even with the creation of the Virtual Learning Network-Community (VLN-C), there has yet to be a consistent message for the development of virtual learning throughout New Zealand (beyond a consistent call for additional resources from the Ministry of Education and other sources).

I absolutely agree with this.  The fractal model that currently operates means there is a real lack of coherence and consistency across the whole network.  So while the cross cluster enrolments and sharing that exists is fantastic, it also highlights the very real differences across the clusters.  I really only have some idea of how the other clusters operate (and some very little idea) which is a problem.  I don’t see any major change in this while we continue to organise ourselves as we do.  Do we really need the number of clusters we currently have.  Why not regionalise a bit more? Surely a bit of rationalisation wouldn’t go amiss.  While raising some challenges it has largely worked very effectively in CantaNet.

Anyway, the next point is a real bugbear of mine…

…there are five different clusters that offer level three calculus, along with four different clusters that offer level two physics, level three physics, and level three Spanish. In fact, 30 of the 61 unique level one through three courses that have enrollments listed in the VLN brokerage website have more than one cluster or provider offering the course.  Do the six level three art history eTeachers communicate with each other? Have all six eTeachers designed their own asynchronous course content that is housed in Moodle or some other learning management system or repository? Do each of the six eTeachers have access to each other’s course materials? If one of the benefits of participating in the VLN is the ability to connect subject matter teachers with each other online to collaborate, it begs the question of whether these eTeachers – probably better placed than any other teacher within the New Zealand education system because of their familiarity with the hardware and software – actually interact with each other?  If the answer to these questions is in the negative, which was the case with almost all of the eTeachers interviewed for this study, than a tremendous opportunity has been lost

Well unfortunately the answer is a resounding no and how utterly tragic that is.  Not only are we often wasting resourcing through unnecessary repetition of courses, but the the eteachers around the country are all re-inventing the wheel.  And yes, this is an issue with face to face teaching, but one of the powerful things about taking learning online is the opportunity to break down distances and connect with others.  So we have all these courses online, but no connections between them?  That beggars belief in a way.  And it happens, because of the fragmented nature of the VLN, coupled with teachers who really haven’t got their head in the right space to do this.  Imagine if you could pull all these teachers together under one umbella with a systematic programme of professional learning that was designed to make these connections.  The possibilities…






  1. professornikidavis says:

    This is a good topic for the VLN Council to discuss and hopefully negotiate strategic action. However, we may need to be realistic because teachers rarely teach the same subject and level in the same way (different teaching philosophies are only one reason) and how much time do VLN teachers get to prepare before they start teaching. In the USA virtual schools have had innovation funding to set up their pedagogy, support systems, procedures and partnerships. A better strategy for VLNC may be to identity and reward the best courses and teacher(s) than to eliminate offerings.
    See for example a state-wide initiative that I supported in Iowa with some charitable funding, a teacher of the year, and a sponsor in Iowa Department of Education who also directed IPTV to provide multimedia and telecoms services, Iowa Learning Online seems to be running full courses these days: “IALearnOnline Courses are filling up fast, but there are still a few spots left in fall ILO courses-check out the list here!”

    • professornikidavis says:

      The VLNC Council did discuss this today and plans to include relevant aspects in its business plan. We also thought that some way of recognizing excellent staff, including eTeachers, would be something to aim for. Maybe a Ministry/CORE e-Learning Fellowship could help to spread the practice as a reward; we could lobby / encourage that to happen.
      BTW, a Cantanet teacher of languages was recognised as outstanding by students in Volcanics, which also raised the point of succession planning if such a teacher were not to continue.

    • Thanks for commenting Niki. I certainly wouldn’t recommend eliminating offerings at all. A focus on professional learning would be the ideal way to improve the quality of learning in courses, and I’m intrigued by the idea of “innovation funding”. I think that would be a great idea.

      A rewards system though? If you were able to recognise all teachers who had demonstrated outstanding teaching, then possibly, but I have never been in favour of teacher of the year awards. They are very subjective and could be counter productive. Building up lots of case studies of good practice I am definitely in favour of and we have very few at the moment.

      Food for thought though.

  2. I agree with Darren. We have often talked about a Natonal eTeacher hui or some such opportunity to get us all together and share practice, ideas and resources. I think this would be a first step to then sort our courses maybe into modules that allows the students to have the expertise in particular areas. While we may have many similar courses I am sure we all have specific expertise within our subjects and could really benefit from team teaching and sharing. Perhaps an online/VC conference? Lynda

    • Perhaps we should aim to do it term four, once we have more certainty about course. As you say it might be a good way to get the ball rolling.

  3. Darren, again sorry for the delay in jumping in, but I have been traveling and my RSS streams have gotten neglected.

    What I had been thinking when I wrote this was an online course repository. I agree with Niki that each teacher – online or face-to-face – will teach things differently. However, I believe one of the biggest shortcomings I saw with the VLN delivery model was that the teachers (and students) had an over-reliance on the synchronous instruction and the asynchronous materials were often what I would call traditional classroom seat work (i.e., work on some project or complete questions 3-9 on page 27). I saw the same kinds of things in my dissertation work in Newfoundland (see

    Now as I see it, there are several problems with this. The first is that what is occurring in the distance or online environment isn’t that innovative. It is basically a replication of what would happen in the classroom.

    The second, and you mention it from my report was, was the duplication of resources that was occurring for the asynchronous course content that was being created. Why you need to spend time creating videos and website and finding resources, only to have another humanities teacher in WelCom or some other cluster to do the exact same work is simply a waste of both of your times. This is particularly poignant with the potential that the Network for Learning has. It could be the repository that creates all of that asynchronous course content that not only eTeachers can use, but any teacher can use.

    The third issue is that while the same is true for classroom teachers (i.e., everyone creates their own materials), teacher education programs have taught them to do that. Its still a waste of resources, but it doesn’t prevent them from entering the work force. The problem is that there are teachers in every single cluster in New Zealand that would become eTeachers, but their fear of having to create online content (and/or their simple lack of knowledge and understanding of how to do it) prevent them from doing so. They’ve never been trained to create an instructional video or how to use the principles of instructional design to create a pedagogically effective piece of online content. I suspect the same is true of many of the current eTeachers, which is why the asynchronous course content often resembles a collection of resources (like an online library); as opposed to coherent instruction that could replace what occurs during the VC session (e.g., or

    Finally, consistency of content also provides a better experience for the student. If courses have a similar look and feel, if things are in roughly the same places, if the process for accessing content or submitting assignments is about the same, it makes life easier for the student. Anything that makes learning in a different kind of environment easier for the student is worth pursuing.

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