e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: A literature review

Publication Details

This e-Learning literature review examined texts across a range of countries, but within a relatively short time frame of the preceding five years. A range of criteria were used to select or eliminate studies for closer review (see Methodology and Methods section). Some key terms are defined for the purpose of this review: outcomes, e-Learning, tools, affordances, Web 2.0.

Author(s): Noeline Wright, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, School of Education, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Section 1: Background

This review, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, seeks to principally address two key questions:

  • What is the nature of existing evidence linking e-Learning to improved learning outcomes for students in primary and secondary schools?
  • What teaching and learning practices maximise (any) benefits of using e-Learning?

These questions provide the scope and framework for the literature review, which is in turn to inform the development of e-Learning policy and projects intended to support students' learning throughout their schooling. Thus the review outlines the nature of existing e-Learning evidence related to school students' learning outcomes and explores key ideas related to pedagogical practices that best link the e with learning. The literature review is designed to:

  • Identify what constitutes high quality evidence of effective teaching and learning in relation to e-Learning
  • Examine relationships between e-Learning and effective teaching and learning in primary and secondary schools via the research literature evidence, both nationally and internationally (as identified in the RFP)
  • Provide the findings for the design of a teacher-as-audience summary of the literature review so that schools can more readily contextualise the findings for their own e-Learning development purposes.
  • Examine evidence related to student outcomes and e-Learning
  • Identify gaps in both research and potential areas of interest for initiatives, thus providing the Ministry of Education with the evidence for possible directions for subsequent e-Learning professional development and research projects, such as the Digital Opportunities and Software for Learning programmes

In order to achieve the above, it is necessary to:

  • outline the New Zealand educational context of the review
  • define important key terms, such as 'outcomes', 'e-Learning' and 'affordances'
  • explain the literature review methodology and methods
  • identify the nature of the evidence and key trends and themes, and
  • explore implications for schools.

New Zealand Educational Context

  • The section reviews the policy framework related to learning, e-Learning and the future profile of learners. It notes key points in policy documents that link to connectedness and the role of e-Learning in supporting current and future learners.
  • The section notes the growing ubiquity and affordability of technologies which can be harnessed for learning purposes, and how this pushes against regulatory and rule-bound frameworks in schools.

This review takes cognisance of the policy context of education in New Zealand, and positions it inside key ideas about education, curriculum, pedagogy and learning as outlined in relevant policy documents. These include the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007), the Key Evidence document related to Ka Hikitia (Ministry of Education, 2008), and the Ministry of Education's outline of what a 21st century learner needs (Ministry of Education, 2006). These, along with other complementary documents, are briefly explored in order to highlight the trends and concepts important to the review's key focus of learning outcomes and e-Learning.

The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) outlines for both English medium and Maori medium classes the overarching vision, principles, values and key competencies of the "official policy relating to teaching and learning… in New Zealand schools" (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 6: English version). Essentially, the expectation is that students emerging from our schools will be "young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners" (p. 7), regardless of whether they are using Maori or English as their first language. The words 'connected' and 'actively involved' in the quoted statement can easily refer to digital connections and the sorts of social networking that many young people already engage in, and which can be harnessed educationally. The extent to which these tools and abilities are, or may be, purposefully harnessed educationally in our schools is part of the brief of this review, along with examining the pedagogical issues hinted at in connecting and actively involving students in lifelong learning. A 21st century lifelong learner will, as outlined in various policy documents (such as Ministry of Education, 2006), need to be proficient e-Learners, since many information sources will be accessed digitally.

The Key Evidence (Ministry of Education, 2008) document reports that when schools focus in meaningful ways on addressing the learning needs of Maori and aim for improved learning outcomes, achievement gains can be huge. While the concept of 'outcomes' will be addressed shortly, there is a clear link made with "emphasising good pedagogy" (p. 18). This particular idea, of a close relationship between pedagogy and outcomes, is pertinent to a review of e-Learning, since there is a clear trend linking co-constructive and student-centred pedagogies and e-Learning. This also links to the NZC policy framework focus on 'Effective pedagogy' (Ministry of Education, 2007, pp. 34-36), which outlines the practices and knowledge considered important in fostering positive learning relationships with students. As in the Key Evidence document, this highlights the critical role of teachers in facilitating effective learning spaces (for example, temporal and intellectual), places, and practices, and harmonises with the evidence from Te Kotahitanga, which asserts that effective relationships between students and teachers are necessary for learning (Bishop & Berryman, 2006).

The futures orientation implied in the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) is echoed in the e-Learning Action Plan (Ministry of Education, 2006), which asserts that, "today's students need to be confident and capable users of ICT and to understand how to use ICT effectively across the curriculum" (p. 8), and that "e-Learning can contribute to the development of the [key] competencies" (as outlined in the NZC) and observes that these competencies should be "applied in ICT-rich contexts for all students" (p. 8). This implies that such tools are readily available and used in schools while iterating that the "most significant within-school factor" (p. 9) contributing to student achievement is the quality of the pedagogy teachers provide. Teachers who use ICT routinely in their classrooms are more likely to be attuned to students' learning needs, and allow a much greater level of interaction and collaboration to take place (OECD, 2005). These ideas are iterated as strong possibilities in The New Zealand Curriculum and a range of national and international reports (CERI-KERIS International Expert Meeting: ICT & Educational Performance, 2007; Cowie et al., 2008; Campbell, 2001; Gilbert, 2005; Ham, 2009; Johnson, Levine, Smith, & Stone, 2010; Mentis, 2008; OECD, 2005; Somekh, 2007) . Such pedagogic practices are in tune with learning environments encouraging reflection, collaboration and co-operation, connections to prior learning, ample opportunities to grasp new learning, and an inquiry focus. These are the kinds of pedagogical actions envisioned in NZC and reflected in the Key Evidence document. The centrality of teachers to e-Learning/ICT-rich classrooms is discussed more fully in a specific section of this review related to pedagogy. And in any discussion of e-Learning, the term 'ICT' must be addressed; it is the 'communication' in the IT that is critical for our purposes, and this will be addressed specifically later.

Also relevant to this discussion are the several trends outlined in the latest Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2010), because these hint at directions for e-Learning. The first and foremost of these trends identifies mobile technologies as having the greatest significance for education. The second argues that pedagogy has a central place, especially when it involves "hands-on, purpose-driven, authentic, and other active learning approaches" (p. 2). The third trend identifies the "increasing connectedness of people around the globe" (p. 3) as having significance in education. The final trend is the increased capability of computer technologies to deliver connectedness coupled with greater affordability; there is a growing ubiquity of technological tools. These trends are considered in this report to be crucial for education, especially since technology developments are creating an increasing "user-centric nature of internet applications and tools" (p. 3).

The regulatory framework in which teachers operate is also a contextual factor. Two important features for secondary schools, as an example, are the regulatory regime of qualifications and the compartmentalisation of subjects into timetables, which may affect students' ability to deeply engage in learning with and through technological tools. This is explored later in the review. There are also the complications of staff and students' regular access to the tools themselves, coupled with the effects of firewalls and other safety and security protocols that schools maintain. These provisions are usually designed to block access to objectionable sites and to avoid viruses, for example, but they can also block access to potentially useful sites. These issues are relevant across all education sectors. For example, the Horizon Report acknowledges that "security concerns often go too far" (p. 3) when it discusses the limiting effects of specific firewalls and security protocols for tertiary education. Schools struggle, it would seem, to strike a balance between security/safety and access for learning. Such frameworks and contexts, including the ability of schools to fund and sustain e-Learning affordances, are important to acknowledge.

What follows is a clarification of key terms used in this review. These include: 'outcomes', 'e-Learning', and 'affordances' and Web 2.0.

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