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Talk-ED: O what a glorious thought, Warm-reekin', rich!

Stuart Middleton
2 April 2012

I travelled south to Dunedin for a family wedding, it was crisply warm, the weather that is, and the whole event was greatly enjoyable. But another thing I look forward to each time I head south is the Otago Daily Times, a newspaper that still keeps its regional flavour and at times can even be inclined to be the parish pump.

But tucked away in Saturday’s edition was an interesting piece[1] commenting on a discussion at a meeting of the Otago Polytechnic Council. Under a heading of ‘Exciting’ times for polytechs, Chief Executive Phil Ker was reported as leading an exciting brainstorming session clearly stimulated by “lively remarks” he had made.

In a scenario for 2021 the vision was for a large 50% reduction in the number of polytechnics in New Zealand. Ker suggested that there would be perhaps only eight polytechnics in New Zealand which seems to return to the TEAC suggestions of the hub and spoke model proposed back then. (Do we hold our breaths and wait for the creation of one national university?)

We probably should be giving very serious thought to this idea. Distances in New Zealand are not great and with the growth and development of internet technologies (see below), access takes on a different scale and perspective. The reduction in the number of polytechnics would perhaps even lead to the phrase “distinctive contributions” being thought about in a new way within a “network of provision” that was national. This was the direction started back in the TEAC but as always the recommendations got socialised into the existing framework and the sector by and large carried on.

The ODT also reports on the prediction that the sector would become fiercely competitive with the new competition from Asia adding to the presence of what the report calls “a national polytechnic” operating in Dunedin. There are two thrusts here – a national polytechnic and the competition from Asia.

We already have examples of quasi-national institutions; Te Wananga o Aotearoa, The Open Polytechnic, Massey University (to a degree so to speak), and at the school level, Te Kura – The Correspondence School. Each reflects a different model and it is hard to be certain just how a national polytechnic might work. It could of course simply be the connection through a new brand of a set of existing polytechnics or it might go the whole hog and be genuinely one institution with one governance body, a single administrative structure and a nationally integrated portfolio of programmes. I know of no such development but deem to see it as a possibility.

Asia as a polytechnic competitor is interesting. It seems to me that polytechnic sectors don’t travel too well beyond the level of single programmes. The training approach, the qualification structures, the professional regulatory systems and the differences in labour market needs all conspire to make it difficult to translate technical and applied education from one setting to another. But it is an interesting warning and one made perhaps more credible by the growth of internet technology and its role in tertiary education.

There have been predictions about all this for a long time but the indicators do seem to suggest that the momentum in the engagement with on-line learning has started to gather speed. Rate of on-line learning at the tertiary level in the USA is ten times that of the general tertiary growth rate and while the general rate shows flatness (2%), the on-line rate continues to grow (10%).

More importantly, it seems to be the trend that says that the on-line / face-to-face issue is not a choice between the two. In the USA, one third of higher education students take an on-line course. And satisfaction rates between the traditional face-to-face and on-line are about the same (see It is reaching the point where institutions that do not pay serious attention to offering on-line learning opportunities even if only to their existing students, will be somewhat left behind .

And this is where a national institution, such as that mentioned in the Otago story, could have both a role and an advantage. Ironically, distance becomes an irrelevance in technology-based education.

Och aye, there’s some interesting discussions being held in the south about education with more than a mickle and perhaps even a muckle of good sense.

Published inEducation


  1. Lila Pulsford Lila Pulsford

    Yes, on-line education is inevitable and offers excellent work/life flexibility options for both students and educators – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a prospective MIT student who cannot enrol in a class because there is no one to look after her children. Similarly, too many women in the workforce are forced to make outrageous sacrifices because there is no flexibility in work hours. And before anyone starts going on about the necessity of real-world interactions and the inability of digital natives to pick up non-verbal cues, I will quote my favourite career transition and social media consultant, Tara Orchard, who says that “We … have evidence that the brain experiences virtual experiences and engagement the same as in-person experiences. This does provide evidence that the emotions one has when building virtual relationships are potentially as powerful and valuable as being in the same room. Human interaction can also be augmented when we can remove some of the barriers such as distance and fear by providing opportunities to engage with people we may never have the opportunity to engage with, find people who share our interests whom we may not have found otherwise or go into a virtual world – even using Avatars that can eliminate first impression bias.”

    The world of work and society’s embrace of social medis has been swift. Why is the education sector so painfully slow?

    Lila Pulsford
    Career Centre Co-ordinator

  2. H. Carpentier H. Carpentier

    On-line learning is the way to go, but it might not be suitable for all courses. It needs to be implemented carefully. There is a large proportion of students who for various reason cannot cope with the format.
    What do we do with these students? Do we condemn then to the scrapheap?

  3. Lila Pulsford Lila Pulsford

    It goes without saying that some courses are indeed impossible to teach online: baking, auto-refinishing etc. etc. I am a proponent of flexibilty in hours worked and studied, therefore this proposal to reduce the number of polytechs may have merit because it would allow the polytechs who are able to offer courses which can specialise in online learning to really get it right and eliminate all of the barriers associated with online delivery such as internet access.

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