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Inquiry into 21st century learning environments and digital literacy

This is the text of the report presented to the New Zealand Parliament in December 2012

To maintain the integrity of the report, please do not edit this page

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We are aware that the education sector is changing significantly as a result of new technologies and access to the Internet. This is an area of rapid change. We considered it necessary to examine the full implications of this rapid development for our education sector, and so resolved to initiate this inquiry. In this report, we use the term “21st century learning” to mean the changes to teaching and learning in schools that result from digital technology. However we acknowledge that many of our recommendations may be applicable beyond schools, in the wider education sector.

The term “learning environment” suggests traditional places of learning such as schools, classrooms, or libraries. However, while much of 21st century learning takes place in dedicated physical locations, in today’s technology-driven world a learning environment can also be virtual, online, or remote.

The purpose of this inquiry is to investigate and to make recommendations on the best structures, tools, and communities, in both rural and urban New Zealand, for enabling students and educators to attain the knowledge and skills, such as digital literacy, that the 21st century demands of us all.

The terms of reference for the inquiry are as follows:

  • Investigate possible options for the best facilities that support teaching and learning in 21st century schools; in particular, investigate more flexible teaching spaces.
  • Investigate possible changes to the timing of when learning can occur, given the spread of handheld devices.
  • Investigate possible options for the best technological infrastructure that supports teaching and learning in 21st century schools.
  • Consider how the rollout of ultra-fast broadband (UFB) will affect teaching techniques and processes, and whether additional resources or training may further enhance the positive effect of UFB on teaching and learning outcomes. In particular, investigate the role and efficiency of the Network for Learning.
  • Consider whether current generations of learners more readily adopt new technology, and whether increasing base levels of technological proficiency may promote independent learning.
  • Investigate the opportunities for technology to increase collaboration between neighbouring schools, and between distance learners.
  • Investigate issues of equity of access to technology in New Zealand schools, which includes establishing the current extent of New Zealand’s digital divide.
  • Investigate the impact of increased digital literacy on learning.

We received 90 submissions, and considered advice from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and from a specialist advisor, Laurence Millar.

Defining digital literacy

Within the broad areas of student competence there was discussion on digital literacy. There was substantial support for viewing digital literacy as more than just technical competence. One submitter recommended that the definition of digital literacy should be aligned to the skills that will equip the New Zealand workforce of the future. We are also aware that some definitions refer to three skill sets that individuals need to master in order to be digitally literate. To achieve Information, Media, and Technology Skills, the theory is that a person needs to achieve competency in these areas. We acknowledge that while there may be differing definitions of digital literacy, the basic premise is that students will be able to come through our education system with an ability to navigate new technologies, and have the skills that are required of them in the modern world.

We are also aware of a wider term used by some of “digital citizenship”. Drawing from the Key Competencies and Values in the New Zealand Curriculum and a growing body of research knowledge, NetSafe in consultation with some New Zealand teachers has produced a definition of a New Zealand digital citizen. NetSafe advocates that digital literacy or the ability to understand and fully participate in the digital world is fundamental to digital citizenship. It is the combination of technical and social skills that enable a person to be successful and safe in the information age.

NetSafe also proposes that just like literacy and numeracy initiatives, which provide people with the skills to participate in the work force, digital literacy has become an essential skill to be a confident, connected, and actively involved lifelong learner. In chapter 6 we set out recommendations for the development of digital literacy and 21st century skills.

Past and current initiatives

The Government and the Ministry of Education have supported the move towards better use of digital technologies in education since the 1980s. Strategy documents include Interactive Education (1988), Digital Horizons (2003), and Enabling the 21st Century Learner: An e-Learning Action Plan for Schools 2006–2010 (2006). The New Zealand Curriculum (2007) emphasises the importance of e-learning and pedagogy (p. 36 of the New Zealand Curriculum).

In the area of technological capability, Project PROBE brought the first broadband access to almost all schools in 2003, and research showed the distribution of laptops for principals and teachers through the TELA scheme at a similar time provided a substantial change in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in schools. We are aware that there has been some interest from Australian parliamentarians and officials regarding our rural broadband rollout and our investment in e-learning, the Virtual Learning Network, the Virtual Kura project, and particularly in building teacher capability.

We had advice from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that the Government is investing $1.5 billion in ultra-fast broadband. We had advice that the Government’s target is for 97.7 percent of schools and 99.9 percent of students to have access to ultra-fast broadband. We heard from the Ministry of Education that it is ensuring (in partnership with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Crown Fibre Holdings) that all schools will be connected to fibre or an alternative technology by 2016, and that over the next few years all schools will have completed internal network upgrades. We heard that the government has invested in Network for Learning Ltd, and its aim is to ensure all schools have access to affordable, safe, reliable, ultra-fast connectivity and content and services from 2013, to enhance school administration and student learning outcomes.

Articulating a 21st century vision

Throughout the submissions, we were presented with a clear consensus on the potential features of the New Zealand education sector in the future. We heard there could be enhanced personalised learning, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing learners to proceed at their own pace. This could allow more student-led inquiry, where students have more control over their learning, and allow them to focus on their own interests, with support from teachers. In such an environment, we heard that digital literacy would be an essential skill to enable and enhance both teaching and learning.

We heard that the current education system does not always meet the individual needs of students. Using the Internet, each student can learn in a more personalised way, and access information in a way that reflects their individual learning needs and style. A number of student submitters said that they valued the individual learning that their schools offer, which is made possible by the use of Internet-sourced resources. We believe major changes in the way students learn are inevitable, and it is essential that the Ministry of Education and teachers be responsive to the shift. We also heard that parents would have more opportunities to be involved in their children’s education, and that their own digital literacy could be enhanced and supported by their children.

We understand that there are many schools that have developed positive 21st century learning environments. We heard of education networks, loops, and clusters throughout New Zealand that are at the cutting edge of best practice. Innovation is happening in urban and rural areas, and students from higher and lower income backgrounds are benefitting. Students and teachers from these communities made enthusiastic submissions to the inquiry, and were confident that the rest of the education sector could benefit from some of their innovations. In particular, we were impressed with the school students who submitted to our select committee from Amesbury School, Tawa Intermediate, and the Computer Clubhouse Trust. We were encouraged by their depth of understanding and their desire for e-learning.

Fostering innovation and collaboration

More innovations are needed beyond the existing community of education enthusiasts and clusters. The networks and loops in question do not just connect schools within a local area. Some of the most innovative uses of the connections between schools involve using networks and loops to allow teachers to collaborate around the country, and to reach more students in a targeted way. For example, we heard from a submitter who leads a regular digital discussion group with the teachers who have been tasked with leading innovation and development in their schools towards a 21st century learning environment. Another submitter had founded a voluntary group of biology teachers, which holds regular discussions of methods that they have used successfully with their students. This subject teacher example is particularly interesting, as it shows leadership by teachers as well as an innovative approach to professional development. These teachers are using the resources available to them to collaborate with their fellow teachers, and to share their innovations so that their students are receiving the best education in biology that the combined group of teachers can offer.

We heard from several submitters about the Manaiakalani project, which has been operating for 19 years. One submitter specifically said that the project succeeds because of leadership, time, and dedication. Another submitter said that before the Manaiakalani cluster proved it possible, he would not have believed that a school could install wi-fi for its community, support the provision of devices for their students, and lift educational outcomes without leaving the school in debt. The Manaiakalani cluster of schools submitted that their students are making exceptional progress.

Evaluation of best practice and research

Throughout this report, there is much reference to anecdotal evidence. We heard there is a lack of research in the area of education. That is why we have recommended that the Government consider improving the research framework to ensure that educational policies are informed by current research thinking and future-focused thinking in the digital area. In considering the research framework, adequate consideration should be given to ensuring that New Zealand research is shared throughout the country and with international research programmes. We believe that one of the most important steps that the Ministry of Education can take to improve learning in New Zealand is to invest more in pedagogic research; other ministries could conduct neuro-biological research. Sir Peter Gluckman noted that we are entering an age of technological change and have little idea of what impact this will have on brain development. The pace of technological development is such that teaching and learning approaches are going to need to be much more flexible to respond to these and future changes.

We heard from one submitter that educational research is poorly funded, particularly compared with economic research, and that there is a lack of professional assessment of the quality and the impact of programmes in New Zealand.

Addressing equity issues

The learning and teaching environment needs to support more involvement of family and whanau in the education of their children. Throughout our hearings, we heard examples of inequity between rural and urban communities, between and within schools, in access to devices, and resulting from the variable digital literacy of individuals. We heard that both the home and the school environment affect students’ ability to become digitally literate. In chapter 7, these issues are outlined and we have proposed recommendations.

We recognise that buildings and classroom design in many schools reflect a 20th century model. Many submitters described their desire for a more innovative and flexible physical environment for teaching and learning.

Submitters repeatedly told us that they would like to see changes to further enhance the education system to better reflect 21st century learning, skills, and competencies. The current system (legislation, policy, leadership, and measurement) can be seen as a barrier by schools, principals, and teachers who are achieving 21st century learning; the system needs to change to support the vision, and create incentives to realise it.

The future of learning and teaching

We heard that changes in the methods of teaching are being driven largely by students. The increasing access that students have to online and blended learning has provided them with a more diverse range of sources of information and enhanced inquiry learning.

We heard that there may be better opportunities for certain areas of the school system such as teaching in isolated areas or the provision of tuition in languages. We heard that there will also be more opportunities for students to access content from around the world, or a teacher in another New Zealand location.

There is a need to up-skill current teachers to offer such new ways of learning. We heard that this could require big changes to the professional learning and development that are available to teachers, as well as initial teacher training, and this will be discussed in detail in chapter 4. We heard from a number of different submitters about possible models to deliver teacher support and professional development.

In order for teachers to facilitate digital literacy, they must themselves be digitally literate. Teachers who do not embrace e-learning are at risk of not being able to maximise learning opportunities for their students. Inconsistent policies in the device policy area have the potential to establish a digital divide within schools.

We believe that the future of learning will be blended; students will combine learning from on-line and video technology with group work and individual study. The skills of a teacher will need to reflect this new blended learning environment.

We received a number of submissions urging us to ensure that the needs of students with disability are considered. We also heard of one school that redesigned a classroom around the needs of a disabled student. We were interested to hear that the school found that all students benefitted from the redesigned classroom. We recognise that under the current education system, disabled students can be marginalised, and we must ensure such students are accommodated in planning for education.

We heard that progress has been made by some individual schools in adopting new methods of teaching. Schools throughout the country have begun to collaborate more by creating networks. The move to networking of schools was motivated in part by a recognition that this approach can help address the challenges that face small schools, especially rural schools. We feel that there is an opportunity for schools to learn from the experience of others that have developed virtual networks.

Potential barriers to progress

New Zealand can boast examples of exceptional 21st century learning in the digital environment. The biggest challenge the New Zealand education system faces is scaling these successes so that every school uses digital devices and access to Internet content and services to maximise learning opportunities. While we heard many submissions describing individual success stories, we would like to have been presented with research that analyses the common characteristics of these successes. However, we acknowledge in chapter 2 that there is a lack of research focussed in this area both in New Zealand and overseas.

We heard that a major factor in the success of a school is leadership. Leadership within schools is offered by principals, individual teachers, and boards of trustees. We heard from a number of teachers who had established leadership roles to progress 21st century learning. We heard that there are opportunities for teachers to become online leaders, via access to the Internet, for example by hosting a discussion forum on their particular subject. We heard from the leader of a “digital citizenship group” of teachers from a range of schools throughout the country, who regularly conference call to collaborate and share ideas about what is working for them. This group shows what can be achieved. We recognise what can be achieved by the leadership of dedicated educational professionals, and in chapter 11, we propose initiatives to support them more.

We heard from some rural schools that geographical location is preventing them from giving their students the best learning experience. Teachers in these schools cannot help their students reap the full benefits of individual and collaborative learning methods based on Internet-sourced content for lack of high-speed Internet access. A number of submitters to the inquiry also said that wireless access throughout schools is an important asset for learning. If students and teachers are to be encouraged to source information from the Internet, then they must be able to access the content quickly and efficiently. The issue of the availability of technology is covered in detail in chapter 7.

Another barrier to teachers realising the full potential of blended learning using digital devices is the time needed to master the new technology, according to submitters. A high percentage of current teachers were not taught skills in information and communication technology when they were at teachers’ college. These teachers are required to find the time to take professional development courses to gain the necessary skills. Submitters suggested that changes are needed to the way that professional development is run, so that these issues can be tackled. Again, this will be addressed in chapter 4.

We heard from teachers who are leading their schools in digital literacy about how they use a wide range of tools in communicating with their students. Their students can learn at a time that best suits them, and we heard of examples of teachers seeing their primaryschool-aged students uploading documents late at night. Teachers may then feel they are expected to facilitate learning at the time which best suits the student. When the school day is over, instead of being able to prepare for the next day, teachers now find themselves communicating with students, and continuing to help them learn.

Teachers who made submissions to the inquiry were asked how they maintained a work– life balance, and many replied that they find it difficult. If technology is designed to make the teachers available more often, teachers’ work–life balance issues should be considered.

Throughout this inquiry we have been aware of the rapidly changing environment, and the need for greater data and research. For this reason we have taken an approach throughout the report whereby we have endeavoured to identify the challenges and emerging trends, then we have identified key work streams that the Government should consider as a result of those issues and challenges.

We are pleased that we have been able to present a substantive report with significant cross-party agreement by the four political parties on this committee.