A literature review focused on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and e-Learning in the context of Te Reo Māori and Kaupapa Māori education

Publication Details

The Ministry of Education has identified the need to further explore the use of Virtual Learning Environments particularly in the context of te reo Māori and kaupapa Māori education. This literature review was sought to provide further understanding for the Ministry of Education in this area.

Author(s): Sarah-Jane Tiakiwai and Hans Tiakiwai, Kiore Enterprises Limited. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2010

Please consider the environment before printing the contents of this report.

This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.

Section 2: Teaching and learning practices

Teaching and learning practices associated with e-Learning and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)


Andrews and Haythornthwaite (2007) state that educators have "long been appropriating technologies into the classroom" – where technology has evolved over time from pen and paper to the more technologically sophisticated tools that are becoming increasingly common in today's classrooms (p. 6. See also Roberts, 2004; Schutte, 1997; Rogers, Graham & Mayes, 2007). This section of the report identifies some of the key themes that emerged from the literature reviewed around teaching and learning practice associated with e-Learning in general and virtual learning environments (VLEs) in particular.

The learning environment

The report of the E-Learning Advisory Group (2002) recognises that the new advances in technology are rapidly changing New Zealand's learning environment. In spite of the "revolutionising" ways in which technology can assist in transforming learning, they acknowledge that:

Technology alone won't achieve this transformation. What is also required is a shared vision of the kind of learning environment we want to create, with genuine representation of all cultures and communities. This is essential if we are to develop our own distinctive approach to e-Learning and use it, along with other approaches, to reflect and contribute to a collective New Zealand identity. (p. 11).

Creating the right learning environment was a common theme in the literature reviewed. A study of rural schools and their engagement with e-Learning by Stevens (2005) found that changes to traditional learning environments and approaches needed to be made because the creation of "open" or electronic learning environments effectively broke down barriers of space and distance, and required teachers to work more collaboratively often across learning sites (which were traditional classroom environments). Piccoli et al (2001) note that traditional learning environments are defined in terms of time, space and place and suggest that in e-Learning environments interaction, control and technology are additional dimensions that need to be considered (p. 403). According to Piccoli et al (2001), VLEs are "by definition open systems that allow for participant interaction" (p. 409). This type of interaction is important because it enables students' greater flexibility and control over their learning. While acknowledging that traditional learning environments also provide for interaction, Piccoli et al (2001) contend that this is limited in comparison to VLEs which provide opportunities for ongoing and more extensive interaction between student and teacher.

Harlow et al (2008) suggest that the more flexible learning environment created by introducing technology in the classroom changes the role of the teacher, where they become more of a "facilitator of learning" (p. 57). In this environment, children are able to be more involved in their learning and the assessment of their learning, where the teacher provides guidance and facilitates the student to become more responsible for their own learning, a point noted by Chandra and Lloyd (2008). Piccoli et al (2001) refer to this as learner control, where students are able to control the level of instruction: reflective of the more flexible learning environment that Harlow et al identified. From their study of laptop use by teachers, Harlow et al (2008) found that teachers were able to:

Select, modify and pace content to meet student needs and interests in a way that is impossible with written texts and whole class presentation. In the process of teaching, students were being guided to take responsibility for their own learning (p. 58).

Chandra and Lloyd (2008) found that students in their study were well aware of the differences between traditional and e-Learning environments and "seized the opportunity" to engage in the different spaces the e-Learning environment created for them (p. 1096).

Relationships and communication in a digital environment

A study of rural schools and their engagement with e-Learning by Stevens (2005) found that the introduction of digital learning required changes to the ways students interacted with each other. Stevens (2005) stated that:

Many students experienced difficulty expressing themselves and, in particular, asking questions in open electronic classes when they did not know their peers from other small communities (p. 123).

As a result, teachers had to organise social occasions for students online to help students overcome this issue. The importance placed on these social occasions enabled students to become "more comfortable with one another" and "inhibitions such as asking questions on-line were overcome" (p. 123). Piccoli et al (2001) concur, noting that "high levels of isolation, anxiety and confusion" can characterise the experience of students who participate in poorly designed VLEs (p. 409). Gilbert, Morton and Rowley's (2007) study on student experiences of e-Learning found that students had varying levels of confidence in interacting with other students. Some of this lack of interaction was located around students' confidence (or lack of) in posting to discussion threads, while others found discussion threads as a positive way of engaging with, and learning from, fellow students. There was also some adjustment required by some students who were still used to face-to-face feedback from tutors, which did not exist on their course.

Waiti (2005), Porima (undated) and the Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics of New Zealand (ITPNZ, undated) all identified the importance for creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions between and with tutors and students, even though they were engaged in online learning programmes. These Māori focused reports highlight the challenges that e-Learning faces in ensuring its relevance across a range of community and cultural contexts (New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), 2004). A series of workshops facilitated by ITPNZ found that participants considering critical success factors for Māori identified "direct human kanohi ki te kanohi" (p. 29) as one such key factor. Porima stated that the importance of this direct face-to-face contact was important because of the sense of "whānaungatanga" it created (undated, p. 10).

A report written by NZCER (2004) for the ITPNZ suggest that the establishment of relationships early in online programmes may facilitate better ongoing communication and engagement between students once the course is going. However, their report found that the effectiveness of students and teachers in establishing relationships and better communication was also influenced by how well-designed systems and programmes were in supporting this approach.


The literature refers to the importance of collaboration for successful e-Learning on a number of levels. One level refers to collaboration as a teaching and learning practice, while another talks about how collaboration is a process of interaction and development between resources and participants or users of such resources. A further level that is discussed here refers to the importance of collaborative relationships – between and across communities, schools and institutions – to facilitate the provision of e-Learning services and products.

Collaboration as a teaching and learning practice in e-Learning environments

Much of the literature talked about the importance of collaboration as a teaching and learning practice in e-Learning environments (NZCER, 2004; McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000; Condie & Livingstone, 2007; Chandra & Lloyd, 2008). McLoughlin and Oliver (2000) state that the "community of inquiry" model is a useful epistemological framework from which to consider e-Learning because of its emphasis on collaboration, shared experience and participation. According to Condie and Livingstone (2007), and supported by Chandra and Lloyd (2008), this emphasis on collaboration impacts on relationships where power structures are altered as students become less reliant on teachers as their primary support for learning. As students are encouraged to take on more responsibility for their learning and teachers' roles move more towards facilitation, Condie and Livingstone (2007) suggest that the implications of these changing roles is not yet fully understood:

The changes are not simple: they represent a fundamental change to the identity of the teacher and the student. This can be an uncomfortable experience, particularly for those holding fast to the 'teacher-expert' model. Such models are deeply embedded and the culture of schools often works against challenging well-established roles and practices. (p. 345).

In kaupapa Māori settings, the shifting roles of student and teacher can be better understood in an ako Māori context, exemplified in a tuakana/teina type relationship. While generally referring to relationships and responsibilities between younger and older siblings, the notion and application of tuakana/teina in kaupapa Māori education settings acknowledges the reversal of these relationships, "the complexities and inter-connectedness" of which are "key to understanding the way in which ako operates" (Pihama, Smith, Taki & Lee, 2004). Thus, while this might be viewed as a fundamental and potentially problematic change or shift in the 'traditional' student/teacher relationship, in kaupapa Māori settings, such shifts are considered a 'normal' part of cultural teaching and learning practice.

Collaboration as a process of interaction and development between resources and participants or users of such resources in e-Learning environments

Wilson (2004) talks about the importance of collaborative action as a way of ensuring a "custom fit between the static resource and the immediate needs of individuals and groups" (p. 79). He suggests that these actions occur over time, and are influenced by who participates in the process and how the resources are moulded to suit the dynamics, purpose and functions of each individual/group action. Ham and Wenmoth's (2007) evaluation of the Tertiary Education Commission eCDF initiative found that those initiatives that had a Māori focus were challenged by different expectations of the different strands that made up each of the groups. In particular, they noted:

Differences were apparent during the projects among educationalists who expected Māori pedagogy to drive the project, Māori development exponents who expected Māori worldviews to be the driver, and information technology (IT) technicians who wanted to get on with building IT tools and resources for Māori e-Learning. (p. 60)

Waiti's (2005) review of the effectiveness of KAWM noted that many of the e-teachers, as they grew in confidence and knowledge in e-Learning, began to get more adept at assessing the suitability and appropriateness of resources for use in online classrooms. However, as Gilbert et al (2007) highlight, in spite of Wilson's comments above, there is still a lack of understanding about quality standards for e-Learning resources.

The importance of collaborative relationships in e-Learning environments

The E-Learning Advisory Group (2002) noted that "unbundling of services provides significant new opportunities which, given New Zealand's size, would benefit from collaborative approaches" (p. 12). The Tertiary Education Commission E-Learning Collaborative Development Fund (e-CDF), which was established in 2003, had the "specific purpose of building the e-Learning capability of the tertiary education system through a series of contestably funded collaborative projects". The evaluation of the first round of projects funded through this initiative indicated that cross-institutional collaboration of the nature and form envisaged by the E-Learning Advisory Group, while not common, was occurring across the tertiary sector particularly amongst institutions of similar type (Ham & Wenmoth, 2007, p. 74). Ham and Wenmoth (2007) noted that the nature of collaboration across institutions was more in the form of projects that focused on information sharing rather than formal institutional alignments.


The E-Learning Advisory Group (2002) reported that successful e-Learning is dependent on "sound pedagogical approaches" (p. 6. See also Bolstad & Gilbert, 2006; Condie & Livingstone, 2007). This view was shared by Marri (2007) and Ham and Wenmoth (2007) who found that in spite of increased communities of practice being formed as a result of the Tertiary Education Commission e-CDF initiative, nationwide understanding of the pedagogy of e-Learning was "spread thinly" (p. 98). The literature also talked about the importance of sound pedagogy, but noticed that initiatives or professional development in ICT, e-Learning and new technologies were more focused on the technology itself rather than the pedagogy (NZCER, 2004; Bolstad, 2004; Trewern & Wenmoth, 2008).

What is increasingly being found is that strategies for instruction in e-Learning environments require consideration of the dominant knowledge forms in which e-Learning is grounded and from which it is developed. Rogers, Graham and Mayes (2007) state that this is particularly evident in international, cross-cultural settings where mis/understandings can reduce or enhance the usefulness of digital technologies. They note that instructional designers, who are responsible for developing educational content and experiences contained in e-Learning programmes, "are not immune from the influence of their own cultural blinders" and suggest that the often taken for granted assumption that Western knowledge is a useful grounding for instructional designers may not always apply in an increasingly global environment (p. 198).

However, Raza and Murad (2008) suggest that the technological developments that have occurred over the last couple of decades has created "new social structures of knowledge creation and knowledge transmission" where time and space are no longer restrictors, thus creating a "new wave of democratisation" (p. 39). They advocate an epistemological pluralism, where "no methodology of knowing the world has an a priori supremacy over the other" (p. 40). While there are perspectives in the literature that agree that e-Learning is reflective of the emerging dynamics that contribute to the knowledge society (Roberts, 2004; Wild & Henderson, 1997), Marri's (2007) reflection of the impact of technology on education cautioned against this optimism, noting that educational reformers have "traditionally turned to new technologies and machines when confronted with failing schools, ineffective teachers, low test scores, or some other threat to the quality of education" (p. 144).

One of the common themes emerging from the literature was the need for better linkages between teachers use of and training in new technologies alongside some professional development in the pedagogy of e-Learning (Trewern & Wenmoth, 2008; Ham & Wenmoth, 2007; Bolstad, 2004; NZCER, 2004). Until this happens, it would appear that the effectiveness of e-Learning in classrooms will remain variable.

Quality tools

The E-Learning Advisory Group (2002) stated that effective e-Learning needed to ensure "on-line resources and assessment are of equivalent or superior quality to those available in a traditional learning environment" (p. 15). According to the Ministry of Education (2006) the effective use of "well-designed digital content across a broad range of learning activities" has a positive effect on student engagement and learning outcomes" (p. 14. Cited in Trewern & Wenmoth, 2008, p. 27). The relationship between well-designed digital tools and resources with schools engaging in e-Learning was also noted in the literature. Drawing on the findings of their study, based on interviews with instructional designers and people involved with educational technologies, Rogers, Graham and Mayes (2007) identified four key themes:

  • general cultural and social expectations;
  • teaching and learning expectations;
  • differences in the use of language and symbols; and
  • technological infrastructure.

General cultural and social expectations

In regards to general cultural and social expectations, one of the respondents in Rogers et al's (2007) study emphasised the importance of sensitivity and responsiveness as ways of managing perceptions, roles and relationships; in understanding the effect of enculturation; the influence of socio-economic status, and the political climates and instabilities of the countries in which the learning environment was located. Most importantly, it was felt that instructional designers needed to be aware of:

General cultural and social expectations in order to make the materials very relevant to the learners, to make it possible for them to use their life experience…and their everyday life environment. (p. 203)

The experiences of Te Wānanga o Raukawa in piloting an ePortfolio software programme, Mahara, suggests that when cultural and social expectations are managed and incorporated in relevant ways for learners, such tools can complement culturally specific learning approaches. Underwood (2007) describes the piloting of Mahara across Te Wānanga o Raukawa as successful because it was able to be used within the culturally unique learning environment that existed at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. Underwood explained that its success was because Te Wānanga o Raukawa was "committed to the use of eLearning technologies…that support our kaupapa" and that Mahara contributed to "pūkengatanga (skill base) and whānaungatanga (shared purpose)" (p. 9).

Teaching and learning expectations

According to Rogers et al (2007), teaching and learning expectations are "influenced deeply by culture" (p. 204). One of the key issues emerging for the instructional designers was the need to be more aware and sensitive about what assumptions they could or could not make about teaching and learning, particularly when working in cross-cultural learning settings. They identified a range of skills that instructional designers might consider to make "wise decisions" particularly when creating cross-cultural learning programmes. These skills included a deeper understanding of cultural expectations concerning the teacher-student relationship and roles and understanding about creating ideal classroom environments and types of activities for engagement. Bolstad and Gilbert (2006) suggest that there is also a need for these 'wise decisions' to consider assumptions about the "digital generation" – where "generalisations…to homogenise young people" implies that they all think and act in the same way (p. 6).

Differences in the use of language and symbols

For indigenous communities, particularly those where there is no written tradition, concepts and understandings of language are particularly difficult to transfer into digital environments. Similarly, the use of symbols and colours in cross-cultural digital environments were not always easily transferable. Rogers et al (2007) state that because this was such a complex area for their participants, "language took a prominent role in their thinking" because they found that language and language structure could influence the way in which people think; that even when English was used in cross-cultural instructional design, it was important that instructional designers remember that not all understanding of English was equal; and misuse of language, symbols, colours, metaphors could potentially, even if unintentionally, create offence for learners. Because of this, cultural competence for designers was identified as being critical. Given this context, perhaps consideration could be given to how different cultures are included and positioned on websites which target multiple cultures. For example, the WickED website included English, te reo Māori and Pasifika languages – however while students were given a choice of entering the site through either the English or te reo Māori versions, the Pasifika students could only engage via email in a range of Pasifika languages once they had entered through the English or te reo Māori versions of the site (Trewern and Wenmoth, 2008). While Trewern and Wenmoth (2008) did not consider the impact this positioning had on the Pasifika children who accessed the site, or assess whether the limited language options discouraged greater use by Pasifika children (which was not the focus of their study), their finding suggests that more work needs to be done to consider the importance of cultural competence and understanding by instructional designers in the New Zealand context.

Technological infrastructure

The impact of technological infrastructure on digital learning environments was often dependent on and impacted by issues such as speed, accessibility, cost and reliability (Gilbert et al, 2007; Ham & Wenmoth, 2007; Waiti, 2005; Bolstad, 2004; Parr & Fung, 2000). Rogers et al (2007) emphasised how important it was for instructional designers to recognise limitations facing different learning communities - in settings where 'technology' was still seen as pen and paper, but also in settings where understandings about and confidence in engaging with technology were still limited. Investing in infrastructure was one of the objectives of the Tertiary Education Commission E-Learning Collaborative Development Fund (e-CDF), which focused on building capability that would support tertiary organizations' ability to deliver e-Learning education programmes (Ham & Wenmoth, 2007). In their evaluation of this initiative, Ham and Wenmoth (2007) found that there were varying levels of infrastructural capability, noting that most of the larger tertiary institutions found infrastructure as less of a barrier to learner access than smaller private training organizations (p. 96). They noted that this was potentially an issue, creating a them-and-us scenario, where smaller institutions who did not have the resources to be able to offer the same levels of e-Learning capability as larger institutions which was further exacerbated by financial resourcing constraints.

Financial resourcing constraints were also evident at the school level. Waiti's (2005) review of the Kaupapa Ara Whakawhiti Mātauranga (KAWM) initiative, which had upgrading of school ICT infrastructure as one of its objectives, found that in spite of technological problems, the upgrading of school ICT infrastructure led to improved processes and opportunities for students to interact with ICT. However, Waiti (2005) found that resourcing, particularly in the areas of expert technical assistance to support ongoing maintenance and development of their ICT infrastructure, would be an ongoing issue for the schools. Similarly, Bolstad and Gilbert (2006) identified infrastructure as a key principle in ensuring the effectiveness of technology programmes and initiatives in schools. They too recommended the need for expert knowledge particularly to support schools in making wise decisions around investing in equipment and software. Both reports talked about cost as being a huge factor in being able to provide or engage in e-Learning activities.

An additional factor to consider, particularly given the pressure for schools to move towards greater integration of technology, was whether the costs such infrastructure incurred resulted in increased students achievement. Parr and Fung's (2000) literature review on computer assisted learning in relation to literacy and numeracy identified that little has been done to calculate the efficiency of technology and programmes against the gains (of increased student achievement). However, there was acknowledgement in the literature that the programmes reviewed were expensive and the return in terms of achievement was questionable. The authors recommended further research to explore this issue.

Does technology facilitate enhanced learning outcomes?

Much of the literature reviewed for this report identified how technology enhanced or supported student engagement in learning, with fewer studies reporting on how technology facilitates student achievement or contributes to enhanced learning outcomes. Interestingly, many of the studies reviewed noted that schools, institutions, teachers and principals talked about positive shifts in student achievement, where these shifts were noted largely through anecdotal examples of increased student engagement (and confidence) in technology. Condie and Livingstone (2007) suggest that this increasing emphasis on the potential for e-Learning to improve learning and attainment is more positively viewed by policy makers than academics, perhaps in response to policy shifts which are increasingly expecting students to acquire and gain competency across a range of technologies. Piccoli et al (2001) noted that while there is an increasing body of literature which suggests that "technology-mediated learning environments" may facilitate student achievement, they caution that these environments are successful only insofar as students are comfortable with and have the confidence to engage with the technology itself (p. 403).  They also note that success is also dependent on the reliability and quality of the technology (p. 407).

There is some literature which suggests that technology facilitates learning in that the more comfortable students were with using technology, the more focused they became on the learning content as opposed to the tools. Harlow, Cowie and Jones (2008), in their study on the impact of laptops on teaching and learning in the classroom, found that the more comfortable children were with technological tools (such as computers, digital cameras and so forth) the more able they were to focus on content of what they were learning rather than the technology itself (p. 52).

However, Schutte (1997) cautions against attributing student achievement to virtual learning environments. In his examination of the difference between traditional versus virtual learning environments and its effect on student performance on a university course, Schutte (1997) found that high levels of peer interaction amongst peers across both the traditional and virtual learning environments was a key component in their performance. However, he suggested that for the virtual learning students, these high levels of peer interaction:

Stemmed from the inability to ask questions of the professor in a face-to-face environment. I believe this lead paradoxically to student compensation evidenced by more involvement between and among peers, who formulated study groups to "pick up the slack" of not having a real classroom. (unpaged)

Similarly, Bolstad's (2004) evaluation of the Notebook Valley project cautions against confusing shifts in students' ICT skills, confidence and increased engagement with ICT with actual student achievement. Bolstad (2004) found that while there was qualitative data to suggest student improvements in their achievement, the standard assessment examinations and tests proved inconclusive. Waiti (2005) also noted that principals and teachers involved in the KAWM project talked about the contribution ICT had made to improved student achievement without specifying exactly where and how this achievement had occurred. Waiti (2005) found that this inability to isolate ICT as a contributing factor to student achievement was complicated by the schools' use of multiple tools (of which ICT was one) for teaching and learning. However, because ICT was such an integral part of the schools' lives, without it "students' learning would effectively be negatively affected" (p. 65).

Bolstad (2004) concluded that rather than having a significant impact on achievement, integration of ICT in schools through student use of laptops, instead, was seen as "having the potential to enhance students' learning experiences" (p. 83). Further, the literature suggests that there is a "shifted focus away" from measuring student learning outcomes, to a more concerted approach that examines elements in the teaching and learning situation that "affect whether and how ICT might impact" on student learning and achievement (Bolstad, 2004, p. 9). Waiti (2005) gives a good example of how principals described the impact technology had in their schools, where students gained more confidence in and were more open to practise the skills they had gained, "with one citing increased length of written work 'from some reluctant students, from two lines to a page, its nice and easy' " (p. 82). Acknowledging that the aim of KAWM was to increase student achievement, Waiti (2005) noted that many schools had not set up ways of being able to measure these shifts before the project started, hence the reliance on anecdotal evidence. This suggests that future studies or projects which link technology to student achievement need to find reliable ways of being able to record and report on such shifts.

Chandra and Lloyd's (2008) attempts to examine the relationship between ICT and student achievement highlights the difficulties raised by Bolstad (2004), Waiti (2005) and Schutte (1997). Chandra and Lloyd (2008) posit that it is difficult to isolate e-Learning from other potential variables and the "drawing of simplistic conclusions" masks the "complexity" that exists in e-Learning environments (p. 1096). The assessments of the students found that some students did not respond well to the e-Learning environment and others who did respond well to the environment did not report positive shifts in their assessment. While Chandra and Lloyd (2008) found improved student learning, they cautioned that this could have arisen from the "renewed enthusiasm" of staff and students or the Hawthorne effect of being engaged in a research project (p. 1096). Conversely, they also noted changes in classroom dynamics and teacher pedagogy, where the teacher shifted away from instruction to mentoring which was received positively by students.


  1. It should be noted that in both this and subsequent sections, the literature includes tertiary, school sector, and distance learning contexts.
  2. As will be seen later in the report, the importance of organising social occasions was also noted in kaupapa Māori environments. However, these social occasions were often face-to-face wānanga or whānau meetings, stressing whakawhānaungatanga processes of kanohi-ki- te-kanohi meetings.
  3. While some of the literature identifies this as a problematic notion, the lack of literature suggests that further research may assist in better understanding these changing relationships. For example, it could be argued that this type of relationship is already a core feature of kaupapa Māori schooling.
  4. Te Reo Māori Curriculum Guidelines (TKI website).
  5. The Tertiary Education Commission. (TEC website).
  6. It could be suggested however that, in theory, the removal of ICT from schools may not necessarily lead to the negative effect on students' learning once beyond the initial 'withdrawal period' of the ICT resources as Waiti found. It may require a reconsideration of teaching and learning in classrooms and is also dependent on the extent to which students and teachers had utilised ICT in their classrooms, what types of and the extent to which ICT tools were being used in classrooms and so forth.
  7. The changing relationship between student and teacher is also discussed on p.6.

Contact Us

Education Data Requests
If you have any questions about education data then please contact us at:
Email:      Requests EDK
Phone:    +64 4 463 8065