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Closing Address to the Distance Education Assoc.

Trevor Mallard
Minister of Education

Closing Address to the Distance Education Association of New Zealand

Dunedin

Saturday 29 April 2000

Embargoed until 12.30pm

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. From the look of the programme material I was sent, you have no doubt taken part in some thought provoking and useful discussions, addresses and workshops.

I've been asked to speak on the topic: "Distance education through advances in technology, and support for rural students."

One of the ironies of being a Minister is that you're sometimes asked to speak on subjects that you might know a bit about, but your audience knows a lot more. This is one such occasion.

I don't propose to try and match your expertise. Rather, I will give you my views on where there are gaps in the education system that I think could be enhanced through distance education and wise use of the advances in technology. I'd also like to share with you some of the factors that I will take into account when determining what support the Government will provide for initiatives in this area.

I'd like to start with some general comments about the development of education policy in New Zealand. I often think back to the amazing partnership between Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Education Secretary Clarence Beeby. They were inspirational in their time. They threw away the prototype for education and introduced a whole new concept for learning. While doing so, they never forgot that education was the tool by which every child could fulfil their potential, no matter what their background.

There is a need today to focus on those values. Keeping up with the developments in information technology is crucial to giving every child in New Zealand a decent chance in education.

Early childhood education

This morning, I've been speaking across the city to a playcentre conference on early childhood education. The Government places a major emphasis on early childhood education. We believe that good quality early childhood education arms children with the skills they need to do well at school and therefore contribute positively to society as adults.

Access to early childhood education is a particular problem in rural areas. There are a number of reasons for this, including socio-economical factors, difficulty in attracting and keeping qualified staff, and the seasonal issues associated with the primary produce industries.

While, I don't envisage three-year-olds sitting up at the computer every day linked to a cyber kindergarten. We have to stay alert to the use of new technology as a means of developing social skills between contact sessions in rural areas. There is also certainly scope for support for parents of young children in remote areas through use of technology. There is also potential for extending some of the work that is already being done by teacher training providers to increase the pool of qualified teachers in remote areas. I'll talk more about that in a while.

Schools

In schools, the use of ICT is no doubt the biggest change in the system over the last few years. It's exciting, it's innovative, and it has come nowhere near reaching its full potential.

There are still hardware and software gaps to overcome, but I think these are largely being sorted out. I would like to see the emphasis now put more on the professional development of the principals and teachers.

The one factor that is more crucial to the quality of learning than any other, is the quality of the teachers. Most of our current teachers trained when essays and assignments were hand written. We cannot expect students to make the most out of technology advances without the support and guidance of their teachers and their principals. Board members also need to 'buy in'. After all, they may be required to make decisions about learning provision that could seem radical.

Schools will not be able to utilise distance learning opportunities without support of the acceptance of the entire school community.

And what are those opportunities?

I'm most excited by the potential to use technology for distance learning at senior secondary school level. It is already happening in small pockets, including wharekura, and I will be monitoring progress quite closely.

At some small rural secondary and area schools, there are so few students at each level that if the situation is not managed carefully it results in a poor quality education. Student numbers mean these small schools cannot employ the range of staff needed to teach the curriculum with the necessary breadth and depth.

There will never be the supply of or demand for an expert physics teacher at every small secondary school in the country. But a student who has the potential to become a rocket scientist, should not have their talent quashed because they happen to live in the back of beyond and their parents can't afford boarding school. My vision is for a system that co-ordinates finding that expert physics teacher, and uses that teacher's specialist skill to teach students from around the country in an interactive classroom situation.

In the near future, I will announce a review into school staffing. The terms of reference for that review will lean towards the staffing requirements of low decile and rural, isolated schools. The main focus will be on core entitlement staffing, but I will be making it clear to the review team that they are also to consider other issues including the potential of distance learning and technology.

Teacher training provision

As I indicated earlier, I see distance learning as a tool by which we can improve the supply of qualified teachers in hard to staff areas. In areas like Northland and the East Coast, outpost courses to train people committed to living locally is a very feasible option for responding to some of the educational need in those communities. I look forward to seeing if the Christchurch College of Education course in Pangaru has any effect on teaching supply in that region. Outpost teacher education courses are by no means new. But I think advances being made in technology can enhance that type of distance education considerably.

The work being done by Waikato University in this area looks quite exciting.

I'd like to see more of the approach whereby established teacher education providers move learning centres around the hard to staff regions every few years. They could provide software and hardware, as well as other resources, and qualified staff who could do some of the tutoring as well as supporting a distance education programme with the main campus.

It is initiatives like this that can help the Government in one of the key challengers we have set ourselves - to closing the social and economic gaps that have developed between Maori and Pacific people, and other New Zealanders.

I also see exciting potential for greater provision of professional development for teachers through distance learning. Professional development for teachers, principals, and board of trustee members is vital. It seems mad to me that one of the few professions which does not have professional development as a requirement for registration, is the very profession that has education at its heart. Access to professional development is particularly difficult for remote, rural school teachers - yet they generally have access to ICT.

Distance learning in tertiary education

Teaching, as a profession, has benefited for quite some time from distance education. I read recently that after Massey was given licence to become the distance education university in New Zealand, it went through a period where the bulk of its extramural students were teachers from provincial towns seeking to upgrade their qualifications.

But of course, distance education at a tertiary level has developed into a diverse and burgeoning sector. An international illustration of how huge it has become is the British situation where the Open University now has more students than were enrolled in all the universities in England at the time the Open University was established.

In New Zealand, the Massey model was appropriate and sensible when it was first established. But nearly half a century later it is time to do a stocktake on distance education provision.

I'm slightly concerned that one of the chief reasons that tertiary distance education has leapt forward in the last decade has been the market model requirements thrust on the tertiary sector by the previous Government. That model did not say 'you must complement each other' it said 'you must compete'.

The Government is overseeing a change of direction for the tertiary education sector and I want distance education to complement that change in direction. We want to develop a knowledge society in which life-long learning is the norm. We place a high priority on access to tertiary education and training - for all New Zealanders.

Membership of the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission was announced just over a week ago. TEAC's job is to advise the Government on the appropriate long-term strategic direction of the tertiary sector. I hope your organisation will have a close relationship with TEAC as they work through their tasks.

There is certainly huge potential for distance education within the areas the commission has been asked to investigate and report back on. In particular you should note that the Government will be seeking a lot of advice on systems which will encourage institutions to work more collaboratively with one another and which will avoid duplication both in teaching and in research.

We are also looking at ways in which institutions can work out what they are good at, in order to determine their subject specialities and to promote their distinctive contribution within the whole sector.

New Zealand is a small country. We need to make best use of our resources to ensure quality tertiary education is available throughout the country. The Government wants to
build a coherent tertiary education system where each institution is encouraged to play to its strengths.

A system like this could certainly lend itself to some high powered initiatives in distance education. Each institution could share its area of expertise with students from other regions. I'd also like to encourage new and different partnerships so that people taking part in distance education get the best of all worlds. By the same token, distance educators should be looking at ways to introduce more interactivity into their programmes. Distance education used to be seen as a 'second best' option. Not as good as being on site, but better than nothing at all. It doesn't need to be like that. Advances in technology means that in some regards, distance education has a head start over on site education.

Without trying to preach to the converted, the beauty of distance education is its ability to cater for people who want to learn, no matter where they live or what other commitments they have in their lives. A tutor in Westport can work well with a farmer on the East Coast. I'm confident that the concept of distance education can complement the objectives of the Government in tertiary education.

In a few years time, when you meet someone new who tells you they're a student, the first question won't be 'Where are you studying?' It will be 'How are you studying?'

Conclusion

I'd like to finish with some general comments about technology.

As well as being Minister of Education, I'm currently acting Minister of Information Technology and Acting Minister of Communications. They're roles that I have been performing off and on since the beginning of the year and ones that I've found stimulating and thought provoking.

Through those portfolios, I've been given some glimpses into the future. A couple of months ago I launched a demonstration by Ericsson of 3g technology. It involved driving around in a van and taking part in a teleconference with visitors back at the home base. We then sent a photograph back to my office of the event. All this through mobile phone technology. While the phone I used weighed 160 kg, in a few years time, such technology will be in every day use from accessories the size of our current cell phones.

Events like that cause me to wonder where it's all heading. The reality is that none of us know.

So how does that void impact on me as a policy maker and funder and you, as providers of a service that uses technology advances to improve education access and provision?

I treat it as a reminder to be careful; to avoid being burnt; and to always keep focusing on what the objectives are.

I also had the unfortunate task earlier this year of putting the Incis mainframe up for sale. I will always think of Incis when making decisions about Government spending on technology. We've all paid for that mistake, and I don't want taxpayers money wasted like that again.

So when Crown agencies are looking for Government support for new ideas that involve using new technology, there will be some fundamental questions I will ask.

Has it been well researched?

Does it involve a building block approach that will not collapse if one aspect fails? Incis was a prime example of where this did not occur.

Who will benefit from the initiative? Does it fit in with key Government aims?

For his keynote address to this conference, Professor Scott wrote this:

"There are far more options for improvement or innovation than there is time or resources to address them."

We are a small country. We must be careful that the decisions we make are wise decisions.


ENDS

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