Bridging the digital divide

Issue: Volume 99, Number 6

Posted: 7 May 2020
Reference #: 1HA7Kx

The Government is connecting up student households that currently lack internet, and supplementing school device stocks as part of a support package to help students learn remotely during the Covid-19 crisis. These efforts build on the work underway to bridge the digital divide in Aotearoa. Education Gazette looks at how we can maintain momentum in closing the gap.

In Matamata, a grandmother is delighted. She has just been connected to the internet and has received a device to support distance learning for her two grandchildren, who live with her. Both children are ORS-funded and have significant global delays and physical disabilities. 

Distance learning hasn’t been easy, particularly with no computer or internet access. 

Colleen Harris, the special education advisor who works with the family, says the grandmother has been doing a “marvellous job” and has been grateful for the school’s support.

 “The children’s school has been great in sending hard-copy adapted work home but these students have not been able to connect with their class teacher and class mates online. The school requested a device and internet which arrived last week. This will enable her mokopuna to access their schools and talk to their teachers and be part of their class. Nan and I are extremely grateful,” says Colleen.

This whānau is just one recipient of the Government’s $88-million-dollar support package rolled out in response to Covid-19 to ensure that a majority of students in Aotearoa have access to the internet and devices to support them with online learning. 

Community partnerships increase access 

The Covid response is building on work begun in many New Zealand schools and communities.

Rata Street School principal Dave Appleyard could not have foreseen just how invaluable a programme to equip his students with access to internet and devices would prove to be in the Covid crisis.

“Who would have thought that on that last day of school, those 80 or 90 students who were here could put their Chromebooks in their bags and essentially carry their learning on at home?”

At the end of 2018, the Te Awakairangi Access (TAKA) Trust along with Chorus,  Network for Learning (N4L) and the Ministry of Education provided Google Chromebooks and free wi-fi access to Rata Street School’s secure managed network for 124 Year 5 and 6 children at Rata Street School in Lower Hutt, Wellington. The project continued in 2020 with another cohort of students receiving internet access.

Dave says the TAKA wi-fi scheme gave his students a head-start in the Covid crisis, with more students and families able to access online learning(external link) than would have been the case previously. 

“The whole premise of the project was to give our kids the same opportunities other students have. The kids can now continue their learning at home. If their family wants to check out the work of the day, the student can show them, or they can hunt for a recipe, play a game, check out passions,” says Dave.

While it’s early days for the project, Dave says anecdotal feedback from families is that there’s now more opportunity for children to explore learning online at home and parents/caregivers have more awareness of what their children are learning at school. 

“In terms of our community, which had really low connectivity, it’s increased and the wider impact – more engagement from parents – is making a difference. The next step could be that students don’t hand back the Chromebooks when they leave us, their home connectivity remains and that carries on to their next school,” says Dave.

Matt Reid, TAKA Trust chair, agrees it appears to be having a positive impact on student engagement.  

“Tamariki can go home and ideally with whānau, extend what they are doing in the classroom into the family living room. For many kids who hadn’t previously been able to do that, that’s been huge,” he says. 

Matt puts the success of the programme down to its community leadership. Joni Araiti – who they called their CoM (Chief of Mahi) – was based in a shipping container at the school for several months engaging with whānau and working with the principal and school leaders. 

“Without her leadership and local connections and passion for the community, this wouldn’t work,” says Matt.

“We had parent evenings and whānau evenings in 2018-19. Unless you can invest in that you won’t get the real benefits for the kids. If the teachers, schools, culture of the schools aren’t prepared, or don’t have the capability, to teach in a different way, you won’t get the same long-term benefits.”

Empowering learning in Northland

A similar community approach to digital learning is proving successful in Northland. The Taitokerau Education Trust has developed a successful digital learning programme which aims to raise achievement through equal access to online education. Its Digital Immersion Programme provides interest-free loans to students in a cluster of lower-decile Northland schools so they can buy Chromebooks for $500. 

“We know how beneficial learning online is,” says Taitokerau Education Trust executive officer Liz Cassidy-Nelson. “Students become incredibly engaged when online resources are opened up to them, especially if they are supported by their teachers and whānau.” 

In response to Covid-19, Northpower Fibre waived its monthly wholesale connection charges for 842 student households in Northland, which means online education is more accessible for students who would otherwise be living without broadband during the nationwide lockdown.

Liz says reinstating connections for so many families means learning doesn’t need to stop while schools are closed.

Need to continue to strive for equity

School leaders are keen to see the work to bridge the digital divide continue, once life returns to relative normality after Covid-19.

Among them is Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell.

“The Covid crisis has highlighted the inequities of the digital divide. We need a new normal – we need to have no students in New Zealand left without access to digital devices and internet. It is simply inequitable – they are not being prepared to work in the modern workforce.” 

Ragne thinks the Government and the Ministry of Education are doing an excellent job in trying to meet the needs of all students, but she says there are no simple solutions. 

“Many of our students are finding it hard to work in crowded homes. There may only be one device at home and a parent may be using it to work. We’re having to advise: ‘Please use the TV for the younger children and prioritise the seniors in terms of who gets time on the device’.”

Ragne believes it will have an impact on Māori and Pacific learners, especially those who are living with large families where it’s challenging to work at home. “All the research also shows they are people who work best in group learning situations that we’re simply not able to create in this time.”

Nearly 75 per cent of Porirua College’s roll of 550 students are from the Pacific Islands, 23 per cent are Māori and the remainder are Pākeha or children from refugee families from Syria, Colombia and Myanmar. 

“A lot of students are finding it confusing and difficult to get motivated independently and when they get stuck, there’s nobody to ask, or encourage them through that hard moment. We are finding some of our top students are finding that a real challenge because they thrive in an environment with very supportive teachers. When they lose courage and belief in themselves, it’s very easy to down tools without someone there to say ‘you can do it’,” she says.

Ragne is worried that the disruption caused by Covid-19 will have an impact on senior students’ qualifications.

“This isn’t just equity about passing NCEA, it’s equity about helping these kids find future lives and not just drop through the cracks,” says Ragne.

“We’re looking for solutions. This loaning of devices and provision of internet can’t just be under Level 4 and 3. If our students are going to have any hope of catching up, this has to be for the rest of the year.” 

Maintaining momentum

The Ministry of Education is eager for this not just to be a short-term solution and is exploring ways that this progress can be made sustainable in the long-term. Ownership of devices that have been allocated during Covid-19, will be transferred to schools to be added to their fleets of devices. The Ministry would also like to see internet connectivity extended, and is looking into sustainable commercial arrangements, securing longer-term funding, and how to work with other sectors to help lock in the current gains.

Secretary for Education Iona Holsted is eager to see this achieved.

“A strong theme from the Prime Minister is that we have learned a lot through Covid-19 and we need to make sure that we take what has worked well and build on it, we need to maintain momentum to close the digital divide, and address equity issues more generally in education and the economy,” she says.

The Ministry’s work in this area is extensive. Its Equitable Digital Access programme has seen projects around the country attempt to gain a better understanding of how to resolve digital inequity. The aforementioned TAKA project is one such project.

The 2016-17 ‘internet in homes’ project at a school in eastern Christchurch also provided some valuable lessons. The project aimed to improve opportunities for students who were not able to access online learning and other web-based resources outside school hours by providing naked broadband via a wireless modem and where possible a school Chromebook for these students to use at home. The project reinforced that bridging the divide is not just about providing connectivity and devices, but also about taking into account teachers’ and parents’ abilities to use technologies and keep pace with digital change.

Pilots like this have helped pave the way for the provision of devices and internet to students who did not have access as New Zealand went into lockdown, prompting a swift and massive scale-up of the Equitable Digital Access programme.

As the Ministry strives for a sustainable way to achieve digital equity beyond Covid-19, it is also focused on continuing to increase the capability of teachers, students and whānau to use technology effectively in learning programmes. 

On the other side of Covid-19

Ragne notes that a small group of students who were not engaged in learning previously have been enjoying the experience of learning from home, which has prompted some discussion around future online learning options.

“I have been talking to some of those who have been least engaged and they are saying, ‘this is great, I’m really liking it, I’m working at my own pace, I’m liking not having the distractions of other students in the room – there’s nothing else to do at home anyway’. 

“We’re starting to see other ways that might engage a few students – and possibly this could happen across schools. It makes us think about whether we need to have some online learning options, even for part of the day, for students who find it very difficult to engage in the classroom situation,” says Ragne.

Wayne Buckland, principal of Bream Bay College in Northland, anticipates that his school’s approach to learning will look different on the other side of Covid-19.

“I think the important thing in all of this is that we’re not thinking of going back to how we were, we’re thinking about going to the new normal and the new normal has to be better than the old way of doing things.”

His staff have all been equipped with a high-end Samsung tablet and utilising Zoom, interactive whiteboards, Explain Everything and other apps and tools, they can run composite classes, connecting with all learners regardless of whether they are physically in the classroom or learning from home.

Students will also have the opportunity to be virtual hosts, even potentially co-hosts. Wayne sees it as a natural progression of the school’s work around the deep learning competencies (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, citizenship, character and communication) that are part of the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning.

“The new normal will be composite classes for ever. So we probably will never use our whiteboard ever again in the classroom – instead that will be the tablet.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:40 am, 7 May 2020

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