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

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Section 3: Kaupapa Māori and e-Learning


The E-Learning Advisory Group (2002) acknowledged the importance of recognising the unique position within New Zealand education, where:

It is a priority to develop Internet resources and other digital material that reflects both Māori culture and values and supports Māori aspirations into the 21st century. (p. 5)

They advocated that in order for New Zealand to "forge its own e-Learning vision" it was important to ensure such a vision included a "confident indigenous dimension" (p. 19) and recommended:

That the Government recognises its responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi to ensure that Māori participate equally at all levels of e-Learning and, in particular, encourage:

  • establishment of a Kaupapa Māori group to work with Kaupapa Māori-based programmes using e-Learning;
  • development of Internet resources and other digital material for a Māori audience;
  • research into key areas of Māori development in the field of e-Learning; and
  • professional development for Māori tertiary practitioners. (p. 8)

In 2003, the Tertiary Education Commission established the E-Learning Collaborative Development Fund (eCDF), which had the specific purpose of building the e-Learning capability of the tertiary education system through a series of contestably funded collaborative projects. One of the objectives of the eCDF was to deliver e-Learning that improves education access and quality for learners. In the evaluation of some of the projects funded through eCDF, it was identified that:

E-learning within the Māori community is seen as a 'leveller' and, in particular, a way to enable learning to take place for Māori communities in remote areas. (Ham and Wenmoth, 2007, p. 60)

From the literature found on Māori and e-Learning, common themes that emerged and which are discussed in this section included the importance of cultural practices and pedadogies, resourcing and barriers.

Cultural practices and e-Learning

NZCER (2004) stated that one of the challenges for making e-Learning more learner centred was finding ways in which courses could be tailored to acknowledge and reflect "local needs, cultures, and contexts" (p. 66). For Māori students, Porima's (undated) report on critical success factors for Māori learners in e-Learning environments found that tikanga Māori processes, such as whānaungatanga, were important. Porima noted that some Māori learners, while acknowledging that they were engaged in e-Learning and online learning environments, still stressed the importance of being able to incorporate Māori cultural concepts such as kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face) interactions.

The findings of the KAWM initiative (Waiti, 2005) reinforce the importance of incorporating cultural practices into e-Learning programmes. Waiti (2005) found that the schools understood the importance of whānaungatanga to establish and develop relationships between students and teachers to effectively support students in their learning. Hui were held at the beginning of each year and at different points through the year to bring together teachers and students to ensure this support was provided on an ongoing basis. This type of relationship building was supplemented by other inter-school events. Partly this approach was initiated because of concerns about how video-conferencing was not suiting student needs. However, Waiti also noted that some e-teachers also considered e-Learning as not always being enough:

Another e-teacher was so concerned about having a relationship with her online students that she arranged weekend meetings with them throughout the year where mostly she traveled to them. This way she was able to meet the students' whānau as well. (p. 27).

This e-teacher felt that this was the only way to ensure they remained an effective teacher.

NZCER (2004) reported on the findings of Campbell and Hawkesworth's (1999) study of the Mixed Media Programme (MMP) run at the University of Waikato, School of Education. What they found was that while most of the coursework was done at a distance, face-to-face meetings were a "vital component of the course's success" (p. 47). However, the online component of the programme also created for both the teachers and the students a strong sense of community – where teachers commented that they got to know their online students better than the ones they taught face-to-face. Additionally, NZCER (2004) note that Campbell and Hawkesworth (1999) found that incorporating more "relevant and real situations where Māori students can bring the reality of their community into the virtual classroom" was seen as being an important and effective way of incorporating Māori cultural knowledges into e-Learning environments (p. 47).

Te reo Māori in e-Learning

There was scant literature which focused on te reo Māori specifically in relation to e-Learning. While initiatives such as the WickED website identified the inclusion of te reo Māori resources and the capacity for students to enter into the site through the medium of te reo, there was little evidence of how effective this incorporation was to Māori students who accessed the site (Trewern & Wenmoth, 2008).

The E-Learning Advisory Group (2002) highlighted five principles which they felt should underpin New Zealand's e-Learning strategy. One of these principles, the Protection principle, made reference to te reo Māori and an example of how this principle could be put into practice suggested resourcing the development of Learning Objectives in Māori language (p. 18). The challenge of incorporating this type of objective into initiatives with a focus on te reo Māori was that the issue of resourcing (as discussed below) is an ongoing struggle for kaupapa Māori learning environments across the education sector. Another challenge was being able to reconcile resources in te reo Māori that dealt with topics that were viewed as quite traditional in nature, which raised questions about whether digital environments were appropriate forums to house such knowledge (NZCER, 2004).

However, there were some examples of how te reo Māori could be effectively incorporated into programmes that met course requirements and Māori student aspirations. Campbell and Hawkesworth's (1999) study on the effectiveness of the Mixed Media Programme (MMP) at the University of Waikato found that offering online courses in te reo Māori and tikanga Māori "recognized and valued Māori students knowledge" whilst also providing levels of support for students who were second language learners of te reo Māori (NZCER, 2004, p. 46). Another initiative, through Te Wānanga o Raukawa's engagement with the Tertiary Education Commission eCDF project found that while seen as a "good start", it still had some way to go in being able to embed e-Learning practices with greater effect for Māori users (Ham and Wenmoth, 2007, p. 60).


The importance of access to appropriate resources, especially those suitable for immersion Māori learning environments, was noted in the literature (Waiti, 2005; Ham & Wenmoth, 2008; May & Hill, 2005). As discussed earlier, designing resources which consider cultural relevancy can be challenging if teachers or designers themselves do not consider their own cultural biases (Rogers et al, 2007; NZCER, 2004). Ham and Wenmoth (2008) noted that the inclusion of a Māori character, Wiki, as one of the hosts on the WickED website was done to invite students to "consider who they were and their heritage" (p. 2). Additionally, the website allowed students to enter the site in te reo Māori and included interactive features based on Māori cultural activities. One example, based on the hangi, was seen as being reflective of the initiative's attempt to be more inclusive of other cultures and languages. Ham and Wenmoth (2008) noted the positive impact the initiatives contained within the WickED site had for Māori students who accessed the site. However, resources of this type are still relatively rare in kaupapa Māori schooling environments.

Teachers in immersion Māori settings constantly battle to find resources appropriate for their classrooms, often having to translate resources into te reo Māori or create their own. This issue was exacerbated for the e-teachers in the KAWM study:

Teachers teaching a new subject will always have to spend time gathering and judging the merits of resources prior to their use, and this is the case whether teaching online or conventionally. Similarly, if the resources have to be translated into te reo Māori for the first time, this is an issue whether teaching conventionally or online. The issue for online teachers was that they had these demands alongside that of planning and implementing online lessons. (Waiti, 2005, p. 20)

To get around this, schools and teachers engaged in KAWM looked at sharing resources through video recording lessons and placing them in digital banks. One of the schools had also looked at establishing a unit to produce resources to allow teachers to "concentrate on teaching" (p. 20).

The lack of resources suitable for Māori immersion environments extended to the provision of technical support and advice. Again, the KAWM initiative highlighted the innovation of the participating schools in addressing these shortcomings. As the initiative focused on cluster environments, the schools were able to develop a cluster of e-teachers as potential sources of advice for other teachers – both within and across the wharekura cluster. Waiti (2005) noted that these schools saw a "strong, supportive community of wharekura e-teachers developing" as a result (p. 24).

In spite of these innovations, the schools reported that the continuing effectiveness of such strategies and initiatives is dependent on the provision of ongoing support and professional development. As the number of e-teachers with familiarity in the wharekura environment was small, Māori immersion e-Learning environments face issues of critical mass – placing stress on already stressed teachers (Waiti, 2005).

The literature identified that students also faced challenges in being able to utilise the resources available to them. For example, students did not always receive adequate training in how to use the resource and were sometimes constrained by not having access to basic tools (such as internet connection) at home (Porima, undated). NZCER (2004) also noted the impact of cost on Māori students having consistent and reliable access to an internet connection. NZCER noted that this is one of the issues of online programmes, which "assume" that students have ready access to computers and phone lines (p. 63). However, Porima also identified Māori students who found that online learning and being able to download resources at home helped them to manage study expenses and class resources. In this context, students considered the overall cost of having to leave their home environment which for some students required relocating families (and moving away from family support structures) and having to find – often more expensive - accommodation and transport.

Barriers to e-Learning

Literature has identified the importance of culturally responsive teaching and learning contexts for Māori students (Bishop et al, 2003). Rogers, Graham and Mayes (2007) have also identified that designers of e-Learning programmes need to be cognisant of culture and assumptions about culture in the work that they do. Specifically, they identified three key barriers to being more culturally responsive:

  1. an over emphasis on content development as the centre of practice and under emphasis on context and learner experience;
  2. a relative lack of evaluation in real-world practice; and
  3. roles that designers assume in larger organizations.

Rogers et al (2007) found that instructional designers were more often focused on content development, designing programmes following a "one-size-fits-all" approach which ignores the different realities and contexts of the learner and creates a disconnection between the designer and their product and the learner, the end-user of the product (p. 207).

Another challenge to e-Learning was how teachers could evaluate the effectiveness of the tools and programmes they were teaching and utilising in their classrooms. The findings of the KAWM project suggest that professional development was a key issue for them, as was the development of sufficiently skilled staff – who were proficient not only in curriculum subject content as well as te reo Māori (which was already a significant challenge for Māori immersion schools) – but who were also skilled in e-Learning pedagogy and teaching.

Designers were also at times constrained by the organizations they worked for. Rogers et al (2007) noted that designers were often hamstrung in what they could and could not do as they were often required to fulfil organizational objectives when designing new tools. There was also a devaluing of the role and function of these designers, where designers were often relegated to technical support roles for teachers and being expected to design programmes for teachers to teach to students with little or no input into or feedback from students' expectations and learning styles. This isolation from the learners and learning environment for whom they are designing creates further disconnections and, from the designers perspectives, creates questions about the cultural and pedagogical relevance of their work.

Student feedback from the WickED initiative, for example, highlights how such input might result in a more effective and user-friendly resource. Trewern and Wenmoth (2008) noted that the hosts of WickED were reflective of the cultures the site was hoping would be attracted to the site: Pākehā, Māori and Pasifika. While there was a colour distinction between the hosts (where the Māori host, Wiki, was noticeably brown), students reported that they didn't like that the hosts were faceless. Trewern and Wenmoth (2008) note that students reported initial concerns that something was wrong with their computer or computer connection (as explanations for why the details of the faces could not be seen). Because there was no accompanying background information about the hosts and their purpose for being included on the site, students felt that the faceless concept was "odd" (p. 13).

The experiences of these instructional designers suggest that consideration needs to be given to the total learning experience – from concept, design to development and implementation and evaluation. Teachers' use of curriculum materials (note that these were written documents, not e-Learning materials), in Pāngarau for example, was hindered because the curriculum document itself was merely a translation of the Maths curriculum document and therefore did not reflect or have relevance to Māori cultural understandings of Pāngarau; and was difficult to apply in the diverse Māori-medium settings that exist in New Zealand (Bishop and Tiakiwai, 2002). While the E-Learning Advisory Group suggested that an inability to provide more culturally relevant and responsive e-Learning possibilities for Māori resulted in a lack of engagement by Māori, the NZCER (2004) report notes that the lack of data and research around the Māori experience generally makes it difficult to support the assertion of the Advisory Group. While not dismissing the position of the Advisory Group, the caution by NZCER highlights that much is still unknown about Māori experiences in e-Learning.

Strategies to overcome these barriers

The participants in Rogers et al's (2007) study identified several strategies to help overcome the barriers discussed above. Using the "building bridges" metaphor, these strategies talk about the importance of separating deeper principles from particular applications; identify how bridges can be built to traverse the gaps barriers have left; allow for more flexibility in the design process; and educate other stakeholders so they too engage in the bridge building process (p. 210). Rogers et al (2007) state that the building bridges concept is:

Associated with being more aware and flexible to the possibility that your own conception of things (e.g., time and schedules, rules and relationships, social and educational expectations, and so on) is not the only view that exists and is valid. The key…lies in finding where the key differences in the current expectations and abilities of learners from different cultures are, and then bridging those gaps through such things as the additional support needed to be successful with the instructional experience at hand. (p. 211)

The evaluation of the WickED website by Trewern and Wenmoth (2008) stressed the need to ensure that cultural groups such as Māori and Pasifika be included in any future e-Learning frameworks to be developed. While it was acknowledged that Māori and Pasifika students did not access the website as regularly as Pākehā students, this was insufficient reason to not ensure more inclusive content. As noted earlier, the inclusion of the interactive resource on hangi on the WickED website was seen as a positive initiative in that it not only provided a space for Māori children to see and have acknowledged their culture, but it also exposed Māori cultural practices and knowledge to wider audiences. This approach received positive feedback from students who accessed the website (Trewern & Wenmoth, 2005).

As noted, Condie and Livingstone (2007) suggest that policy makers have played a critical role in advancing e-Learning. May and Hill (2005), in their review on Māori-medium education, found that many Māori-medium initiatives and programmes were often developed "ad hoc…often with little knowledge of, or consistency in appropriate pedagogical approaches" (p. 394). They acknowledge that much of this development has usually been at the instigation of whānau and/or communities, which in effect is reflective of how Māori immersion movements such as Kōhanga Reo and kura kaupapa Māori evolved. While not admonishing the developments whānau and communities have made in the pursuit of kaupapa Māori education, May and Hill (2005) caution that such initiatives may end up being counterproductive if they are not carefully developed and implemented. One of the challenges highlighted by the KAWM initiative is that such careful development and implementation is difficult to achieve when teachers and schools are often faced with external pressures by government agencies and policy makers to make educational shifts in ways which also at times might appear contrary to whānau aspirations (Waiti, 2005, p. 122). It would seem that these settings are constantly building bridges to manage these tensions.


  1. Tertiary Education Commission (TEC website).
  2. It should be noted that this was the approach of one teacher who, in spite of acknowledging the benefits of e-Learning, also grappled with how to provide a culturally responsive and appropriate way of approaching their teaching and learning in an e-Learning environment. While it was in isolated example, it points to the ongoing tension that may exist for those in kaupapa Māori schooling environments – that being the tension of providing quality education (through the provision of a range of curriculum subjects often not available to kura) and the need to provide quality education in culturally appropriate and responsive ways.
  3. Trewern and Wenmoth (2008) acknowledge the difficulty they had in engaging kura kaupapa Māori as participants in their evaluation of WickED, which may explain why the lack of analysis pertaining to the Māori elements of the website.

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