Tuia Te Hononga Tāngata, Tuia Te Hononga Ao: Taking the Pulse of Distance Learning in Aotearoa New Zealand

An initiative by

Touro University and FutureMakers

in Partnership with EPIT

01 July 2024

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This report represents the first of three studies as a part of a larger research project that Michael Barbour and Derek Wenmoth are undertaking in Partnership with EPIT.

The purpose of this first study was to examine the nature, regulation/governance, and scope of activity of distance learning providers in the New Zealand school sector during the 2023 school year.

The second study is focused on collecting historical data (i.e., the 2019 through 2022 school years) on the scope of activity from the distance learning providers in the New Zealand school sector, which will provide a better understanding of the impact of the pandemic by providing pre-COVID, during COVID, and post-COVID distance learning enrollment data.  Finally, the third study explores the future of the educational ecosystem in New Zealand and the role that distance, virtual, and flexible learning might play in that future.  These two studies are currently in progress.

The drive behind this initiative

The use of distance learning in the schools sector in New Zealand can be traced to the creation of The Correspondence School in the early 1900s (later renamed Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu). By the late 1990s and early 2000s the development of virtual learning programs had begun. In an effort to better understand this emerging environment, in 2011 the Ministry of Education commissioned the then Distance Education Association of New Zealand (now Flexible Learning Association of New Zealand or FLANZ) to undertake a study into the development of virtual learning in New Zealand and the barriers faced in achieving sustainability and maturity (Barbour, 2011). One of the recommendations of that Primary and Secondary e-Learning: Examining the Process of Achieving Maturity report was that an annual national study be conducted into the nature of governance for distance learning, as well as the level and scope of activity, similar to studies conducted in the United States since 2004 and Canada since 2008.

“There were efforts by Tātai Aho Rau | CORE Education and later the Flexible Learning Association of New Zealand in 2015, 2017, and 2020 to undertake this study. However, those efforts did not materialise for a variety of reasons until the Education Partnership & Innovation Trust got involved.”

– Michael Barbour, Project Researcher

Approach to change

The purpose of this research project was to undertake a national study into the nature, regulation/governance, and scope of activity of distance learning providers in the New Zealand school sector. The specific research questions that were explored included:

  1. What is the nature of governance of schools sector distance learning in New Zealand?
  2. How is schools sector distance learning in New Zealand resourced?
  3. What is the extent of schools sector distance learning activity in New Zealand?

The data for this study was collected through surveys sent to the leaders of schools sector distance learning schools/programs throughout the country. These individual provider responses, along with follow-up queries, were summarised into structured profiles. Each profile was shared with the individual provider for their feedback, although the researchers reserved the right to not make requested changes unless they impacted the accuracy of the profile.

Impact for Equity

1. Approximately 36,078-36,277 students enroled in one or more distance learning courses at some point in the 2023 school year. As there were a total of 831,038 students in New Zealand during that period of time, this represents approximately 4.3% to 4.4% of the overall school population.

2. The actual enrolment activity varies significantly depending on the level of student and the type of school. It is safe to estimate that only 1% of the overall population of primary school students engage in distance learning, while the proportion of secondary school students engaged in distance learning is approaching 10%.

3. Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu is the dominant provider of distance learning in the school sector, and their instructional model is primarily asynchronous in nature. However, the dominant model for other public providers is synchronous in nature. While they represent the minority of activity, the majority of private distance learning providers use an independent learning model that is individualised or personalised to the student as their dominant instructional model.

the majority of distance learning providers in New Zealand fall into the category of private schools who are either operating primarily as a distance school or that operate a brick-and-mortar school and also provide some distance learning offerings on a supplemental or full-time basis.

Learnings & Outputs

This research provides a comprehensive national study that examines the regulation, governance, and scope of activity of distance learning providers in New Zealand's schools sector. Data was collected through surveys distributed to leaders of distance learning schools and programmes nationwide. The findings reveal a diverse landscape of distance learning providers, categorised into two main types. The first type of provider includes schools defined under the Education and Training Act 2020, encompassing various public and private schools offering distance learning. Among these providers, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (formerly the Correspondence School) was identified as the dominant provider of distance learning in New Zealand, and the only institution recognised as a distance school under the current legislation. The second type of provider, referred to as "programmes," includes providers not specifically referenced in the legislation and further categorised into non-profit programmes (i.e., charitable trusts) and for-profit programmes (i.e., private enterprises).

The report begins with a detailed history of distance learning in New Zealand's schools sector, providing a comprehensive narrative of its evolution. It then transitions to a general analysis of data collected from the 2023 school year, highlighting significant national trends in regulation and activity levels. Based on a developed taxonomy, six types of distance learning providers were identified: public distance learning schools, special institutions offering distance learning, private schools offering distance learning, brick-and-mortar public schools providing distance learning, non-profit distance learning programs, and for-profit distance learning programs. In total, the study identified 18 distance learning providers, withan estimated 36,084 to 36,283 students enrolled in one or more distance learning courses during the 2023 school year. This represents approximately 4.3% to 4.4% of New Zealand’s total school population of 831,038 students.

While distance education has been a part of the compulsory schooling landscape in New Zealand for more than a century, the increasing use of online technologies in schools, together with significant events such as the COVID-19 pandemic have seen a steady increase in the number and variety of distance learning providers catering for school-aged learners in recent years. This report provides a foundation for expanding research that reflects the diversity of needs and solutions that digital technologies and e-learning are addressing in our educational practices. This report and accompanying website are intended to provide a benchmark for educators, offering background, guidance, and ideas for the improvement of policy and practice in online and blended learning into the future.

The full report can be found on the project website at:


Touro University and FutureMakers

Michael K. Barbour is the Director of Faculty Development and a Professor of Instruction for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California. He has been involved in K-12 distance, online, and blended learning as a researcher, evaluator, teacher, course designer, and administrator for over two decades. Michael's research has spanned the globe with a particular focus on the effective design, delivery, and support necessary for students to be successful in these flexible learning environments. His involvement in distance and virtual learning in New Zealand began in 2008, and has included presenting keynotes and other papers at Flexible Learning of New Zealand conferences, several national reports, and serving on the boards of multiple Virtual Learning Network programs.

Derek Wenmoth is the founder of FutureMakers which he established after stepping back from his position as Director of eLearning at CORE Education, a not-for-profit organisation providing professional learning, research and consultancy services across all parts of the education sector in New Zealand. Derek has been a teacher, principal, teacher educator, distance educator and education policy writer in a career spanning more than four decades. He helped establish the Virtual Learning Network in New Zealand in the mid 1990s, was the eLearning manager at Te Kura (New Zealand’s Correspondence School) where he oversaw the transition from correspondence to online activity, and was awarded a life membership of the Flexible Learning Association of New Zealand in 2016. He has been involved in providing strategic advice on flexible and online learning to the Commonwealth of Learning and departments of Education in a number of international contexts.