Derek Wenmoth: Learning and Teaching From Anywhere

When Derek Wenmoth first began studying distance education, he believed strongly that it was a way to provide accessible, relevant, and high-quality experiences to learners from all walks of life in all parts of New Zealand. At the time, the concept consisted primarily of correspondence courses. But as he began experimenting with Web-delivered distance learning in the mid-1990s, Wenmoth's excitement grew along with the opportunities he began to imagine for his students -- and for their teachers.

"Education is a fundamental human right," says Wenmoth, a means to "a decent society where everyone contributes in a positive and productive way." Distance learning, now a much-enriched system to deliver the highest-quality education experiences as broadly as technology will allow, is still his passion.

Wenmoth is the director of e-learning at Core Education, a nonprofit group he founded with two colleagues in 2003 that designs and hosts online learning communities for educators and offers professional-development courses, as well as collaborative student projects. Teacher education was Wenmoth's focus for eleven years prior to launching the organization; as early as 1995, Wenmoth orchestrated large-scale teacher-education programs that combined face-to-face instruction with online communities.

Some 24,000 New Zealand teachers have enrolled in the online professional-development program in instructional technology Wenmoth oversees. More than half of the nation's schools participate, including language-immersion schools for the Maori, who preceded New Zealand's European settlers by hundreds of years. The program is expanding to reflect the country's new national curriculum framework and to train teachers and principals in whole-school development and reform strategies. Based on the program's success, Wenmoth is now working with Malaysia's Department of Education on a similar effort.

His blog embodies his enthusiasm for all things e-learning but also underscores his end goal. In December, Wenmoth wrote, "I began thinking how easy it is to become excited about the fact that Twitter now has a new feature called TwitThis or that Google has added twenty-three language translation bots, but at the end of the day, what are these things really worth to us unless we are able to use them in ways that may profoundly alter the ways in which our students think about the world, their part in it, and the things they might do to help spread a conspiracy of love within it?"

Mary Kadera, a former teacher, is a freelance writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and volunteers with local environmental organizations.
Read the Q&A

How do you use the Web, or other technology, in your work?

The Web is extremely important to me, both in terms of my personal research and writing and because it allows me to participate in a range of professional learning communities I would not otherwise have the privilege of being a part of. I use a wide range of Web 2.0 applications in the work I do and carry my trusty laptop with me wherever I go.

Because I cannot guarantee good levels of connectivity in all parts of New Zealand, yet, I rely on a number of "offline" applications to help me. Besides my email and Web-browser applications, I have two favorite pieces of technology I use on a regular basis every day.

The first is my blog site developed in Movable Type, which is where I gather my thoughts and ideas about e-learning and the impact of ICT on learning, and exchange comments with others who read it; the second is my RSS aggregator, for which I use a desktop application called NetNewsWire. This system provides me with an efficient way of browsing through the blog entries of other education luminaries, and news sources, to keep up to date with what is happening in the e-learning world.

Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?

Earlier in my career, back in the pre-Web days, I studied the theory and practice of distance education in the work of Bjorn Holmberg, Desmond Keegan, Otto Peters, and others who proposed theories in which the teacher and the learner were geographically separated and various forms of technology were used to mediate the relationship. These foundational understandings have stood me in good stead as I've taken advantage of the opportunities presented to me by the Web, which, regardless of location, have expanded enormously.

In the 1990s, I was greatly influenced by the work of two people: Don Tapscott, who wrote Growing up Digital in 1998, and Neil Postman, who wrote The End of Education in 1996. Tapscott's work challenged my beliefs and understandings about how we embrace the ways in which young people who are growing up immersed with digital technologies are learning, how we can make our education system relevant and meaningful to them, and how much we have to gain from allowing them to be more fully involved in it.

Postman clarified for me the much bigger-picture issues around why we have a schooling system at all, and what indeed is the end of education. He also provided me with a perspective on the role of technology in education. I recall one quote from that book that I've used in nearly every presentation I give: "Technological change is not additive, it is ecological . . . a new technology doesn't change something, it changes everything!"

Nowadays, I draw a lot of inspiration from the various news feeds and blogs I subscribe to, including those of people such as Stephen Downes, Christopher Sessums Jay Cross, George Siemens, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, and Ewan Mcintosh, to name a few, along with feeds from organizations such as the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO, where I can learn a lot about what is happening in developing parts of the world.

Who are your role models?

I've had the privilege of being mentored and influenced by a number of people I'd consider role models. One is the principal of the teacher's training college where I lectured for eleven years. He was a highly respected educator who was constantly looking at ways to improve what we were doing for students.

He once asked me to write a scoping document and plan on how he could implement a new distance-teaching initiative. I worked on it for weeks, knowing that whatever I produced would come under considerable scrutiny. When I shared it with him, I discovered that he already had a view about a key principle of how the program should be implemented, and that what I'd spent so much time scoping up was premised on a totally different principle.

One could argue that this was a fault of his in the way he set the task, but, consistent with the free-rein approach he'd adopted, he sat and listened to my defense of my plan. After a couple of such meetings, he agreed to allow the program to proceed the way I'd scoped it, and over fifteen years later, it is still going strong here in New Zealand.

The lesson I learned from him is about listening, and the fact that anyone can have a good idea, so you'd better listen to make sure you don't miss any. The other key lesson I learned is the importance of research and being informed -- and using these factors to defend the things you believe in or about.

What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?

Three things are important to me as I work in the public-education system: Education should be accessible to all, it should be relevant to the learner, and it should be of the highest quality. As I've ventured into the world of the Web and e-learning, I've regularly referred to this as the "promise of e-learning": to make education accessible to everyone, regardless of location, age, ethnicity, educational background, and so on; to make the learning experience and what is learned relevant to the learner -- both in terms of what is learned and how it is learned; and finally, to ensure that the educational experience of all learners is of the highest quality, in terms of the resources, the teaching, and the sharing of ideas.

Underpinning all of this, of course, is my belief that education is a fundamental human right and that through education we can achieve a decent society where everyone contributes in a positive and productive way.

What is your mantra in the face of adversity?

I am definitely a glass-half-full sort of person, so if I had a mantra in the face of adversity, it would be something like "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" I know it sounds like a cliché, but there's a fundamental truth in it, particularly for anyone involved at the leading edge of new initiatives or change. In these circumstances, one is bound to face adversity, and the only way through is to understand that it's not a personal attack; rather, it's the understandable response of people who are not prepared yet to adopt the innovation or accept the change.

Optimism is no substitute for doing your homework and putting in the hard work, but it sure makes the difference in terms of helping you stick with a task. Coupled with this attitude is the need for personal and corporate vision and another mantra: "Without a vision, the people perish." In my experience, so many initiatives die, or people give up, because they get caught in the minute detail involved in making it happen, and they forget to take a breath, to draw back and look at the big picture again, to remind themselves of what the vision is that they're striving for.

What's your favorite piece of technology or Web site in your personal life?

In my personal life, my favorite piece of technology is my iPod and the JBL Creature speakers I can plug it into when I am at home. I have eclectic taste in music and a wide range of favorites, including rock, jazz, chill, and orchestral, that I like to put on to suit my mood when working around the house.

Among my favorite personal Web sites is a New Zealand-based one called Old Friends, which allows me to get connected with lots of people with whom I used to go to school, or that I worked or participated with in clubs and organizations. In the past few years, I've reconnected with dozens of people from my past in this way, and I look forward to the regular email notifications I receive from the site whenever someone new subscribes who is identified as having attended the same school, workplace, or organization as me.

If U.S. educators visited schools in New Zealand, what would be most striking to them? If educators from your country visited the United States, what would be most remarkable or different about U.S. schools? One of the things CORE does is arrange tours of New Zealand schools for delegations of overseas teachers, Ministry of Education officials, and other educators. New Zealand has about 2,600 primary and secondary schools, including small schools of less than 20 students located in remote, rural settings through to large, urban secondary schools with between 1,000 and 2,000 students. We consistently get feedback about the amount of flexibility they observe in the ways schools operate and about the degree of control teachers have over what they teach and how they teach.

This is because in New Zealand, each school is a self-managing entity managed by a locally elected board of trustees. The central Ministry of Education is responsible for providing policy, curriculum frameworks, and national goals that each school interprets independently, providing programs that are a reflection of the diversity of needs and aspirations of local communities. A second key thing is the approach to assessment, and how this approach gives freedom to schools and teachers to pursue programs based on a constructivist pedagogy, involving collaborative activity, problem-based, and inquiry learning, with a focus on assessment for learning instead of assessment of learning.

In New Zealand schools, you will not find the same thing being taught in the same way at the same time across all schools, and there is no regime of standardized testing and grades being awarded, apart from the summative assessments at the end of each year at the senior secondary level. Instead, there is a focus on personalizing learning, students participating in the planning and determining outcomes of their learning, and emphasis on formative assessment strategies that often involve the students as part of the process.

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