With rural schools facing teacher shortages, is the future of learning online?

A few years ago, online schooling was something of a rarity for the majority of Kiwi kids. But now in the COVID-world not only is it something both students and teachers have become more comfortable with, it may have also opened the doors for a future model of education - particularly in rural parts of the country where it can often be a challenge to recruit teachers.

One person who firmly believes online learning is the future is Jamie Beaton. The 25-year-old co-founded Crimson Global Academy (CGA) in 2013 in a bid to help international students get into elite American and British universities. The online school, which opened in New Zealand earlier this year, now operates in 20 countries around the world and has 20,000 students enrolled, including around 200 here.

He believes a learning model such as that offered by CGA could revolutionise education opportunities in rural parts of New Zealand.

"If you think generally about rural locations, the local schools are going to have challenges recruiting teachers, they're going to have limitations on how many subjects they can offer, and it's often going to be hard for classmates to find other classmates who might have comparable interests or similar ability levels," Beaton told Newshub.

"And what that often means is that the quality of education is going to be compromised in some regards."

He believes the potential of online schooling not only means students can access world-class teachers - and "not just teachers that live 20km or so around your school" - but parents, who themselves may now have more freedom to work remotely, also have the chance to be able to live outside the main centres if they choose to.

The struggle to recruit teachers in rural areas

Andy England, principal of Greymouth High School, admits recruiting teachers in some of the country's more far-flung areas can be tough, but says despite the challenges rural schools always find a way of providing for their students, even if they have to get creative. 

In fact, he says, rural schools have been tapping into online resources for years.

England told Newshub that in his 14 years' experience recruiting teachers has "never been easy", but with COVID-19 closing the country's borders it has become even harder this year as foreign teachers, whom the school often relies on, are unable to apply.

He says while online options do offer a solution, he believes there should be more effort made by the Government to make it easier for skilled overseas teachers to enter the country - during both COVID and non-COVID times - to fill the gaps.

With a critical shortage of teachers in key subjects such as maths and technologies, England says it can be hard to recruit teachers in specialised fields even in urban areas. But for places like Greymouth, it's made even harder.

"We struggle to get Kiwis applying for jobs here. Once they get here, we retain them no problem because it's really good living here, but getting Kiwis to come here is really difficult."

Rather than rely on online options, England believes a greater effort needs to be made to train up teachers in subjects where numbers are low. The Government also needs to make it easier for skilled people from other fields to enter the teaching profession without going through the current "cumbersome system", he says.

Stephen Beck, president of New Zealand Area Schools Association and principal of Hurunui College in Canterbury, says there will "most definitely" be a shortfall of teachers in the coming academic year.

"Some schools have reported zero applicants for advertised positions," he told Newshub. 

Beck also stressed the issue for rural schools was attracting teachers, not keeping them. He said rural schools often battled a perception that there were less opportunities for career progression than in urban centres. 

"This can not be further from the truth," he said.

"Opportunities to grow as a teacher and within the profession can be greatly enhanced in the smaller rural setting. Leadership opportunities are more forthcoming and the ability to have more autonomy over the teaching and learning programme can be liberating. Rural and area schools are adaptable and more able to tailor the learning more closely to the needs of the class cohort and/or individual students. 

"This is a major positive of working in a rural setting."

England said despite the challenge of attracting staff he always managed to find talented teachers in the end. However, he said that came down to good fortune more than anything else.

"I always feel like I've got lucky [in terms of having good people apply] but you can't rely on luck - there has to be something better than just relying on luck."

New perspectives after COVID-19 lockdown

Beaton says although online learning has been a consistent trend in recent years, he estimates the COVID-19 lockdown brought things forward by five to seven years.

"COVID has definitely accelerated online education pretty dramatically," he said.

"Many families that had never previously experienced online learning experienced it during lockdown and with many families getting acquainted with remote work - parents working remotely - it's only natural the child's doing some virtual learning as well. 

"Suddenly a significant proportion of the world's learners have now been exposed to this and many of them realised this is actually quite exciting - and for the right demographic it can actually be more effective."

Both England and Beck said tapping into online help can be useful, and is actually nothing new for rural schools.

"It's been happening for years," England said, pointing to facilities such as Te Kura (formally The Correspondence School) and NetNZ - a community of secondary and area schools that work together to provide online learning opportunities for students.

"They've been covering the shortfall of teachers in rural areas for a long time."

Beck said although CGA "could always be an option", its private-school price tag would put it out of reach for many people.

"The financial barriers it would present would make it difficult for many of our families," he said.

"The first point of contact should always be your local school and to work alongside them to build a learning pathway that meets the needs of the child."

Beck says during the lockdown earlier this year, many rural schools were quickly able to adapt to teaching online and coped well.

"The degree that they know their community is a massive advantage and allowed many of these schools to quickly respond to what was unfolding. Schools learned a lot from the lockdown and this has had a positive impact on what is happening back in the classroom. It forced teachers and students to adapt and take a different look at what learning looks like."

He said a "more blended approach" not only came to the forefront but continues to exist to some degree now.

"Having parents more connected with their children's learning was another positive. The use of online cloud-based applications such as Google Classroom has been transformational and I don't think schools would have been able to respond in such a manner even three to five years ago."

England also said he found his school was in a good position to cope with the lockdown.

"I wouldn't say it was easy, but it was relatively manageable in terms of effective learning for us, because we were pretty well set up."

Different approaches for different students

While the pandemic has revealed that online learning works for some students, it has also shown it's not suitable across the board.

"I still think that face-to-face teaching is really important because learning behind a screen doesn't work for everybody," said England.

While many children thrived during the lockdown, he said, others found it tougher going.

"Some kids find face-to-face with their peers challenging because they get anxious around their peers, but for many other kids they really miss the relationships and the interaction of face-to-face teaching."

Patchy internet can also make it difficult for students in some rural areas. England says while his connection on school grounds is okay, "there are certainly some areas in rural parts of the region where home connection is not as good".

Beck echoed England's sentiments that online learning differs child-to-child.

"Learning and teaching from home is certainly not for everyone. For those students that are not intrinsically focused, and/or struggle to manage their own learning and/or are already disengaged at school, the lockdown was not a positive learning experience. 

"There was a distinct feeling that if the lockdown had continued on much longer, learning at home was wearing thin and there was the potential for disengagement to increase. A big part of teaching is being able to form and maintain relationships with students and this is 10 fold more difficult in the online space. Humans are naturally social creatures and most crave social interaction."

Beaton says it is possible to create a social atmosphere online. He highlights the fact CGA teaches students in "live classes'' that are much smaller than those offered in many traditional learning environments. The school also has real-life meet-ups for students living in the same country.

"There's about six to 12 students in the class - and students actually debate, engage, they collaborate, for example solving math problems together, etc, and the teacher is speaking to them and it's often seminar-style. So the frequency of engagement is actually much higher than in a physical school, which means you can't just sit in the back row and coast. 

"You've actually got to engage - which generally makes kids more confident over time and also causes them to grapple with the material."

He said a "classroom engagement metric" also gives teachers and parents hard data about student interaction.

Beaton also highlighted the fact that classmates come from various countries, giving students exposure to people from various cultural backgrounds.

"In our online environment, you can meet classmates from around the world and from a young age actually be a global citizen, which is pretty exciting."

With rural schools facing teacher shortages, is the future of learning online?
Photo credit: Getty

A mixed approach going forward

One thing that seems clear going forward is that online learning is a tool that can be used to supplement traditional schooling, rather than compete with it.

Beaton said the bulk of students at Crimson - around 70 percent - study part-time while still attending their local school, with around 40 percent of all students worldwide coming from a rural background of some sort.

He admitted the learning style wasn't for everyone but said the fact CGA offers accelerated courses with International GCSE and A-Level qualifications give families living in various parts of the country - and the world - a range of options they wouldn't otherwise have.

England also sees online learning as an extra - something to be used when necessary but not to be relied on.

"I don't think it will take over," he said.

"I think it is a partial solution."