education.govt.nz

Little kura leaps across digital divide and connects community

Issue: Volume 97, Number 7

Posted: 30 April 2018
Reference #: 1H9iX8

Students Hinauri August, Leilani Wahia, Ria Reweti and Tuwai Mason-Eketone exami

Students Hinauri August, Leilani Wahia, Ria Reweti and Tuwai Mason-Eketone examine corn plants and use their laptops for data recording in the kura’s garden

Te Kura Toitu o Te Whaiti-nui-a-Toi, which sits in the hills near Murupara in the Bay of Plenty,  is now a digital hub using ultra-fast broadband (UFB) and its students can study at home and do their homework online.

Jobs are few in this area and its 400 inhabitants had never had any telecom or internet access, so the kura organised the building of three towers to connect the remote homes and valleys in the Urewera hinterland.

The school’s board led the move, taking up the opportunity offered by the Government to encourage access to UFB in schools across the country. Once the planning was complete, it took only four days to have the three-metre towers put up by internet service provider WiFi Connect, based in Tolaga Bay, in 2016. But the transformation was immediate for the community.

Now students are connected outside the classrooms and at home 24 hours a day. Board member Chris Eketone says they love it. “They walk around holding their Chromebooks like wallets!”

But the benefits of the innovation are expected to spread far wider than just more learning opportunities, and include new options for employment, health, education and cultural sustainability. Other schools and kura in equally remote communities could do exactly the same thing, Chris says.

Digital learning is at the heart of the National Curriculum, and digital equity is a key education goal. Being connected online at home as well as at school is essential not only for educational achievement, but also for modern life. However, although it’s critical that students have access to digital communication outside the physical school, many New Zealand learners still don’t.

It is estimated there are 35,000 homes around the country without access to the internet, representing 100,000 school-aged children. In 2014 the Ministry of Education announced a policy to enable schools to extend access to the internet for students and their community using the infrastructure provided by the Government’s UFB programme.

Chris Eketone with plants that students cultivate and collect seeds from for the

Chris Eketone with plants that students cultivate and collect seeds from for their studies, including kumara and gourds

That sparked the kura’s board into action. Chris says, “When we heard about the opportunity of accessing UFB in our area, we thought, ‘We don’t know how to do this, but let’s do our research and find out how to set up the infrastructure to support digital’. So we started with the Ministry, made the right connections, built a relationship with a service provider and other stakeholders and now it’s up and running. We’re proud to have done something that will transform our community.”

There had been some existing service by satellite, but it was erratic and expensive. Chris says it could take up two weeks for an email to reach someone in the area.

For the children at the kura, all of whom are Māori, that meant they suffered the disadvantage of not having access to the internet at home, and could not continue their studies or do homework online. Their families also experienced the drawbacks of not having internet service when they wanted to go
online for the many transactions that other
New Zealanders take for granted, such as email, online banking and searching information.

The internet connection is now fast and reliable. “Children are engaged in all aspects of learning, not just digital,” Chris says. But adults are benefiting too as they now have the opportunity for online learning and upskilling, and jobs have been created by businesses that previously had no reliable access to the internet.

Big benefits for the community

The board received funding of $38,000 to pay for the three towers that provide the service, from Ngati Whare Runanga and Tauhara North Trust.

The fast broadband is not free for households, but the board has negotiated a low-cost service with high data allowance. The school had already been operating free computer classes for local adults as part of its role as a community hub, but acting as a UFB hub takes that to another level. Instead of suffering through crackly and unreliable connections, people can now make calls over the internet using VOIP, and everyone can communicate for free through texts on the Messenger app. That includes the local doctor, who has been using Messenger to communicate with patients to give more immediate medical advice than the previous monthly visits would allow.

The area has few jobs and a high proportion of residents are on benefits. Until recently, there had been no employment growth in the area for decades. But recently around 80 jobs have been created at a nearby nursery growing native plants, for which the availability of an internet connection was essential. Eight jobs have been created at a nearby dairy farm after the staff went through online training, using training provider Taratahi Trust. There are plans to advance even more opportunities for training and upskilling, and improving local infrastructure.

Chris says the kura’s cultural curriculum studies will benefit as students study and analyse local fauna, flora and the natural environment using online resources.

He says teaching of te reo will also be strengthened. His advice to other remote communities with limited or no access to the internet is to get started by contacting their school to initiate a conversation with the Ministry of Education. “If we can do it, anyone can. It’s transforming our children’s learning opportunities and the benefits are spreading across the community.

“Even if you don’t have two cents to rub together, like us, with the right support and determination, the world is your oyster. Being remote is no barrier to digital access.”

GIVE US YOUR FEEDBACK

The Ministry is keen to have feedback from schools on setting up digital hubs to ensure the process is as streamlined as possible. To do so, email Digital.Hubs@education.govt.nz

GET IN TOUCH TO CLOSE THE GAP

Please contact the Ministry by email if your school has a significant number of pupils who don’t have internet access at home, or if your school feels that the lack of internet access at home is affecting your students’ engagement with education or the ability of your school to make the best use of digital resources in your teaching practice. 
Email: Equitable.digitalaccess@education.govt.nz

WHAT ARE DIGITAL HUBS?

In 2014 the Ministry of Education established a policy to enable schools to extend access to the internet for students/community using the infrastructure provided as part of the Government’s UFB programme.

Find out about Sharing your school's wireless connection with the community(external link)

In 2012 the Government created the Network for Learning Company to provide safe and secure internet access to all state and state integrated schools in New Zealand. By 2015 99 per cent of schools had taken up the service.

WHY IS DIGITAL ACCESS IMPORTANT FOR ALL CHILDREN?

At the start of 2017 Government research estimated that there were 35,000 homes without access to the internet, representing a total of 100,000 school-aged children.

The Ministry, schools, industry and community groups are exploring ways to close this gap and ensure students have equitable digital access whether at home or at school and in between. One option that can help close the gap is by a school becoming a digital hub.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:00 am, 30 April 2018

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