Article

A challenging job in unchartered territory

They’re a select and talented group that’s making a real difference to teachers across New Zealand. Chris Allott McPhee looks at the role of the ePrincipal.

eLearning Clusters are an exciting and interesting place to be teaching and learning in New Zealand. These largely rural-based groups of schools across the country have a strong focus on personalizing learning, providing quality education and a broad curriculum to students, often through the Virtual Learning Network (VLN).

Teachers and students use a range of interactive technologies including videoconferencing, websites, electronic whiteboards, learner management systems, email and phone as their way of ‘getting to class’ each day. However, the 168 VLN courses and programmes undertaken by nearly a thousand students every week don’t organise themselves.

Behind the scenes are a small number of people generally known as ‘ePrincipals’ – a group of hard working, talented and often innovative leaders who support, manage, coordinate and drive these clusters to meet the demands and expectations of their member schools, principals and communities. It’s a challenging job in largely uncharted territory.

The Ministry of Education currently supports 10 established eLearning Clusters to employ ePrincipals in fixed-term, full-time positions. It also enables this group to attend/undertake leadership professional development to develop and enhance their teaching/school management backgrounds to better meet the demands and
requirements of the role.

A dual focus
With a strong interest in maximising the opportunities for students and teachers within their individual regions, the ePrincipals have a dual focus:
• inward-facing – working with the individual schools, their staff and students to best meet the needs of all within their cluster;
• outward-facing – working collaboratively and supportively with ePrincipals/leaders of other clusters to access expertise which is not readily available locally.

Shared professional development and learning collaboration is a key element of the programme’s success so far. The ePrincipals work actively together (and with their mentor and lead-school principals) to grow and share their expertise as leaders and elearning practitioners. This brings several significant benefits to their clusters – access to a stronger range of knowledge, skills and expertise; stronger ties and relationships with other clusters, and both the expertise and economy of scale this provides; and the opportunity for discussion and strategic planning on a national scale rather than only
a regional or local one.

The Ministry of Education’ eLearning Action Plan for Schools 2006, states: “Effective teaching through e-learning depends on the teacher being supported by leaders at all levels of the system. School leaders need to: understand how ICT can support learning, enable staff to explore innovative e-learning practice, and have the confidence and capability to lead and manage the change required to maximise the benefits of these technologies.”

The eLearning Cluster ePrincipals and leaders currently play a strong role in achieving this goal for rural schools, their staff and students in New Zealand.

CHRIS ALLOTT MCPHEE IS A MINISTRY OF EDUCATION SENIOR ADVISOR FOR THE VIRTUAL LEARNING NETWORK.

WHAT IS THE VIRTUAL LEARNING NETWORK (VLN)?
Supported by the Ministry of Education, the VLN is a community of secondary and area schools that share classes, resources, expertise and professional learning across New Zealand. They’re also able and enthusiastic participants in online events such as virtual field trips, international collaborative class projects, and inter-school competitions.

A typical class has a teacher at one school and up to 12 students spread over a wide geographic area (and several other schools) all participating in lessons and activities throughout the school week. The goal is a rich and participatory learning experience for students with debates, experiments and group work much the same as in any other kiwi classroom. The subject choice and variety is extensive and is certainly not limited to theory based offerings – equine studies, aviation, senior physical education and music are all weekly occurrences alongside the likes of chemistry, accounting, geography and German.

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