Can a new online environment save education?

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 14:44, June 11 2014
POND: A new online resource for teachers being developed by N4L.

POND: A new online resource for teachers being developed by N4L.

OPINION: 

New Zealand spends millions of dollars on software to work out what and when to feed cows to maximise the yield from dairy herds.

But Chris South, team leader at Ministry of Education spinoff N4L, says that if you asked five history teachers at schools that were in the same deciles and areas, and had the same-sized rolls, what they used in their classrooms to help with their lessons, "you would probably get five different answers".

"There is not just a disparity in knowing what resources are out there, but also in knowing how to use them," he said.

"There are lots people getting totally different results from the same things."

That could all change with Pond, a portal being developed by N4L.

It is designed to be the place in cyberspace that teachers will visit to find, use, adapt and comment on educational content uploaded by fellow teachers, professional providers of educational resources and useful material available on the wider internet.

Next year, the portal will also be opened up to students.

It could transform education or turn into an unholy mess. Failure won't be through a lack of resourcing.

With a total cost of about $3.5 billion, the ultrafast broadband initiative is one of the country's biggest infrastructure investments, and the priority is to hook up schools.

On top of its $1.35b contribution to the UFB initiative, the Government has committed a further $211m to pay for a managed network offering uncapped broadband to schools.

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A big reason for all this spending is to provide better access to the content in Pond, which, like the managed network, is the responsibility of N4L, which has been set up as an independent Crown entity.

"The problems Pond solves are the difficulties of accessing fantastic content," marketing manager Andy Schick said.

"We all know there is no such thing as page 2 on Google. You just look at page 1 and if it's on page 2 it may as well not exist."

A few hundred teachers gathered in Wellington last month to get some hands-on time with the portal, which N4L is intentionally opening up only slowly to schools.

N4L is recruiting about 500 teachers to become "pioneer educators" in Pond.

Their job is to help N4L knock the portal into shape, so when N4L opens up Pond to the other 64,500 teachers this year there should be less chance of them navigating away forever in horror.

That's a genuine risk.

"New Zealand's education system is littered with online environments that once had good intentions and which failed to thrive," Schick reminded the assembled teachers.

But that is not a reason not to keep trying, he said.

"It is a reason to do things a bit differently, which is what we are trying to do here."

There is the potential for Pond to be crowded, messy and daunting, and my first impression of the portal was that it was all three.

After keying a query into a simple and clean "Google"-style search page, teachers are plunged into a sea of hits organised into three dense vertical columns, with external web content on the left, accredited teaching resources in the middle and teacher-generated content on the right.

For aesthetics, I'd give it a "C-, could do better". And no doubt it will do better. N4L recognises Pond will always be a work in progress.

Whether N4L will be able to create enough ripples of enthusiasm to ensure Pond doesn't stagnate before it becomes genuinely useful will come down in part to teachers' patience and the time and energy they are willing to commit to win brownie points from their peers by uploading and rating content.

The idea of uploading teaching resources and lesson plans to a portal and then "mashing" one another's content is apparently not something that comes naturally to all teachers.

But the queue of teachers willing to become pioneer educators seems to bode well.

Schick admits N4L has made some blunders, such as launching Pond with a confusing log-in process, which has now been improved.

"Some of the pioneer educators have been taking some pretty big hits where we have got something wrong," he told teachers in Wellington.

"They are feeling that frustration, communicating that to us and we are going in and fixing it."

 - The Dominion Post

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