Secondary Teaching at a Distance: a New Zealand Case Study

Kwok-Wing Lai
Univesity of Otago, New Zealand


New Zealand is a sparsely populated country and with a population of just over 4 million, there are on average only 17.6 people per square kilometre (Wikipedia). It is thus not surprising to find that many schools in New Zealand are very small, particularly in the rural areas. In Hattie’s (2002) study on the comparative achievements of students, he divided all New Zealand schools by size into four quarters, and 25% of them only had a roll of between 1 and 67 students. At the secondary level, due to the small size of many schools, there is limited availability of specialist teachers to teach senior secondary courses. Until recently, students who were unable to take classes in their own schools would usually take distance courses offered by the New Zealand Correspondence School ( Established in 1922, the Correspondence School now provides courses from early childhood through Year 13. While increasingly being supported by digital technologies, these courses by and large are self-study courses.In the mid-1990s, a few rural high schools began to form into networks to facilitate cross enrolment of courses supported by digital technologies. Students in a network school would be able to take distance courses offered by other schools within the network (Stevens, 1994). More clusters of schools have been formed since and one of the pioneer clusters was the OtagoNet, which used video-conferencing technologies and a community approach to provide real-time learning for students in the South Island of New Zealand. For a typical OtagoNet sponsored distance class, there was a one-hour video-conferencing session and three hours of self-study per week throughout the school year. Teachers were recruited and trained to use technologies to support their teaching and classes were offered through a teacher’s home school (Lai & Pratt, 2009). In collaboration with university researchers, some OtagoNet teachers used the knowledge building approach (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006) in their teaching (Lai, 2015). OtagoNet has become a leader of distance teaching in New Zealand and in 2013 it expanded and merged with other networks to become a national organisation. Renamed NetNZ, it started to offer online courses for students all over New Zealand. There are now 54 secondary and area schools associated with NetNZ and in 2017 it offers over 80 National Certificate of Educational Assessment (NCEA) level classes in science, math, languages, technology, social science, art, and health and physical education subjects (The New Zealand’s National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) are national qualifications for Year 11 to 13 students. There are three levels in NCEA, and each has its achievement standards (AS) assessed through internal and external assessments. New Zealand secondary students are assessed nationally based on these standards.). Small in scale, it was estimated that in 2016 there were over 2,000 online students enrolling with clusters of networks, and about 700 of them enrolled in NetNZ courses (K. Pullar, personal communication, December 2, 2016). With the rapid increase of Internet connectivity, many NetNZ courses now use Google handout to conduct class sessions. There is great potential for distance and online teaching to grow in New Zealand, particularly at the secondary level. For example, distance courses could be offered to urban students providing them a more personalised choice, and allowing them to complete a high school qualification online, similar to what countries such as the U.S. did (Tonks, Weston, Wiley, & Barbour, 2013). To realise this potential, there is a need to have a deeper understanding of how distance teaching is practiced by online teachers, since distance online teaching should not be seen simply as a reproduction of face-to-face teaching (Lai, 2014). Unfortunately, little research has been conducted in New Zealand to document why teachers become online teachers, how they feel about online teaching, and how they can be better supported. The purpose of this paper is to fill this knowledge gap.

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