The Government’s new COOLs school concept appears to pit traditionalists against modernisers – but there’s more to it than that.

In the reaction to Hekia Parata's proposed new Communities of Online Learning (COOLs), the debate has been relatively polarised, with plenty of arguments for and against. And there are lots of good questions being asked: Is the proposal a major change, or merely a technological catch-up? Is it a disaster in the making, or careful reform? More teaching bashing, or simply responding to the diverse needs of students?

Below, the two polarised verdicts on the proposal are set out. But, of course, positions are always more nuanced than they might immediately appear, and both sides of this debate see both merit and risk in online learning developments.

Verdict 1: Parata is a fool

Not surprisingly, the Opposition parties have led the way in opposing - or at least asking the hard questions about -the new COOLs proposal. Much of this has focused on disparaging the Education Minister - see, for example, the blog post by Labour's chief spin-doctor Rob Salmond: Hekia's waynebrave. He says "The Education Minister, Hekia Parata has form on having stupid ideas in public... Well, she's outdone herself this week. Hekia's new idea of massively expanding online-only primary schooling just reeks of small-minded, bureaucratic penny-pinching, right down to the naff name for the new sCOOLs" - see: Hekia's waynebrave.

Labour is leading the opposition to the proposal, reportedly saying that "The Government's proposed online learning centres are a way of privatising the education system by stealth" - see Newshub's Online learning centres a 'Trojan horse' - Labour. The party's spokesperson, Chris Hipkins is also quoted as saying, "National's agenda is being driven by a desire to cut costs and privatise. It's certainly not being driven by education and research".

The Greens and NZ First have also been highly critical of the plan - see Mei Heron's Online schools will supplement, not replace schools - Minister. The Greens' Catherine Delahunty also argues that the COOLs open the way for privatisation, while NZ First's Tracey Martin "said it was one of the most dangerous things she had ever seen in education".

The Post-Primary Teachers Association has spoken out against the initiative. According to Newshub, PPTA president, Angela Roberts, "says the proposal - which could be the biggest shake-up of the education system since the 1980s - will damage the state education system most children rely on" and she is quoted as saying: "Anything that increases privatisation and reduces resources and support for the network of state schools is of course going to be damaging" - see: Online schools - education solution or 'absolute disaster'?

Leftwing bloggers are also firmly opposed. No Right Turn sees merit in new technology in schools, but suggests this is simply about cost-cutting: "if the idea was coming from the education sector and driven by education professionals who were interested in outcomes and the welfare of those kids, it would be worth considering. But when it comes from an education minister whose sole priority in office seems to be trying to find ways to close schools, cut costs, and funnel public money to her private donors and cronies, its hard to view it as anything other than yet another means to achieve those ends. The logic for the government is just a little too naked: 'schools are expensive and troublesome, so lets close them down, sack the teachers, and replace it all with online learning we can contract out to the lowest bidder / our donors'. Yeah, nah. I'd rather have schools, sorry" - see: Not COOL.

Moana Maniapoto declares that she's "not 100 percent against charter schools", but also thinks this is about cost-cutting: "400 schools have closed in the last 15 years largely on the advice of Treasury, which declared that bigger schools are more cost effective than smaller schools. Look at the potential savings online schools could bring. Transport - think of all the cars and buses off the roads. Housing - all that real estate space created by downsizing or simply razing empty school buildings. Finance - fewer pupils means fewer teachers. And health - no more catching bugs and kutu off other kids" - see: Hold on Hekia. Cyber schools aren't the answer.

To Martyn Bradbury, it's all about getting rid of teachers, or at least their current power: "National see teachers as Taxi drivers in an uber world... This is an all out war now on public education. It has started with the funnelling of millions into private education and secretive ideological Charter Schools and it ends with the National Government effectively killing off Teachers altogether" - see: National's contempt for Teachers finally outed with talk of on-line education.

Rather than ideology driving this latest announcement, Danyl Mclauchlan sees it as an attempt to show voters that the Government is still doing things: "Earlier this year Key is said to have asked his Ministers to come up with some new policy ideas, to deflect the criticism that they were a tired, exhausted, intellectually bankrupt government spinning its wheels and going nowhere. Maggie Barry's 'Predator Free New Zealand' stunt was one. And now here's Hekia Parata" - see: Electrons!

Mclauchlan is also critical of the concept of online learning, saying that on top of the many unanswered questions about the concept of COOLs, physical class teaching is still how people want to learn.

For many, it's the untried and untested nature of Parata's proposal that concerns them. For example Alison Campbell, a scientist from Waikato University, says the proposal is "like an untried social experiment with the potential for a lot of brown stuff to hit the fan" - see: COOLs? are they as cool as they sound? She wants more information: "I'm sorry, Minister, but we need - and our children and students deserve - to see the actual evidence that this proposal works before it's put into action."

Campbell's blog post also highlights existing research and information about digital learning, and points to existing use of technology potentially making reform unnecessary: "Yet digital options already exist in mainstream schooling & have been used very successfully to engage students, with notable successes - including for students at low-decile schools. So we should be encouraging & supporting teachers in all schools to investigate ways of doing these things, rather than setting up yet another layer of schooling - presumably also funded by the public purse - to 'fix' a perceived problem in an untried way. After all, a range of resources already exist"

Others are put off by the conveniently gimmicky COOLs acronym being used to sell the concept. Paul Little says the concept would more appropriately be labelled Ostensibly Helpful Communities Offering Mediocre Education Online Now", and he speculates on how the new name was created - see: Totally way too COOL for School.

Matthew Dallas is even more cynical about the acronym: "One wonders if they simply stumbled upon the convenient abbreviation - 'OMG, it spells COOL' - and fell over themselves in high-five delirium. Or perhaps the COOL came first, and it was all about finding the right words in the right order to fit the message that, you know, they were hip with the kids and what they were proposing didn't seem like the origin story for a dystopian science-fiction movie" - see: Education reforms half-cooked and not so cool.

Verdict 2: The new rules and tools are cool

The IT sector is, unsurprisingly, supportive of Parata's online learning proposal. The chief executive of the Institute of IT Professionals NZ, Paul Matthews, has published his response, saying "We see this as a positive thing for our sector - there will always be a struggle to get enough expert teachers to teach digital tech at secondary level and this allows a provider to teach DT to lots of (traditional or online) schools at once in a blended model" - see: Government to introduce online schools.

Matthews' whole column is worth reading, and includes positive and negative evaluations. He suggests that orientations to the idea are largely ideological:
"Whether allowing private providers to become online schools is good or bad probably depends on your political ideology."

He's not simply a cheerleader for the proposal, however, and points out that in terms of what is proposed, "technically this could (and does) happen now anyway." And he cautions: "What could go wrong? Plenty. Anyone in the Ministry of Elsewhere who thinks this change will mean doing away with teachers is plain wrong". But here's his conclusion: "So there are some valid concerns about how this will work in practice but, if implemented well and with good rules around how they will operate, it certainly has the potential to provide good innovative options for those who don't fit within a traditional schooling model in New Zealand."

Many have pointed out that the COOLs proposal relates closely to what the existing correspondence school, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu, already does, and how it is evolving to use more online technologies. It's therefore of interest that the school's chair Karen Sewell has spoken out in favour of the proposal - see Nicholas Jones' Students to learn online from home instead of at school under major education reform.


What about students and parents? According to Newshub's Maiki Sherman, "Students Newshub spoke to were equally keen - saying technology goes hand-in-hand with their generation" - see: Online education may replace schools.

Newstalk ZB's Rachel Smalley has lots of concerns about the COOLs concept, but says "when I began to dig down into this initiative in more depth, I've moved a little on it. I can see some merit in it" - see: Significant risks with online education plan. Smalley points out that, although the risks need to be scrutinised, the current system clearly isn't working for everyone: "But for a small number of kids, the school environment is a challenge. The subjects and the curriculum don't meet their needs or don't engage them.

In fact, the Ministry talked about children who've been disengaged from education for some time, and every option has been exhausted. So this online system could, they say, work for them." And after all, the new option will, Smalley says, hardly affect anyone: "for the majority of Kiwi kids, there will be no change and this is purely what it says on the tin - it's an option."

Former Labour Minister of Education - and current Vice Chancellor of Massey University - Steve Maharey, is relatively favourable to more online learning, but he cautions that the technology has to be used in a sophisticated pedagogical way: "The minister is right when she says that new technology offers students and teachers exciting new possibilities. But those possibilities will only be positive and lend themselves to great learning if it is understood that the technology is merely a delivery mechanism. On its own it changes nothing" - see: Delivering an education fit for the 21st century.

Maharey says it is right to have a debate about the initiative, and it's yet to be seen whether the plan should be accepted or rejected. But he's favourable towards using digital forms of education: "This is just a matter of keeping up with the opportunities new technology offers in the 21st century."

Newspaper editorials are, so far, relatively favourable. The Herald seems open to the idea, but is focused on the need for robust accreditation, safeguards, monitoring, and accountability - see: Online school plan invests in the future but needs careful oversight. The editorial concludes: "It is worth a try but will need careful monitoring as it gets off the ground."

The Marlborough Express is less convinced, and focuses more on who is driving the reform and why it's seemingly come out of nowhere: "Where did the idea come from? Where might it lead? Who is pushing it? Who stands to gain - and lose - the most?" - see: Beginning of the end of our schools? But it concedes the idea might have merit: "For some children, especially the more gifted with parents fully involved in the process, the move might well bring benefits."

Finally, for satire on the cool schools, see Andrew Gunn's Education without teachers. In an "interview" with the Minister of Education, it is explained why the Government choose COOLs over "Synthetic Teacherless Oases Of Learning", and how Candy Crush and Pokemon Go might fit into the new schools.