Why need to close the digital divide in our schools - now!

The "learning pack" sent to one family this week

August 2021 marks 18 months since the arrival of COVID-19 in New Zealand and since then the country and regions has experienced a number of lockdowns. New Zealand's response has in many ways been phenomenal - articulate and calm leadership informed by science and research and supported by a compliant and committed "team of five million".  

So why then do we let a digital divide persist?

In a country with a government and leadership that prides itself on kindness and care I am confused and frustrated that we let a gaping digital divide mean that learning and connectedness during lockdown continues to be a school, decile and postcode lottery. Last year about 23,000 digital devices were purchased or leased by the government to supply to families that did not have one, the minister stating at the time that more than 100,000 children (about 80,000 households) did not have access to a digital learning device. Whilst it was great to see a response from the government that saw them procuring what they could, it felt like when lockdown ended last year, so too did the focus on rolling out any kind of digital strategy.

Fast forward to August 2021, a firm lockdown kicks in, schools are notified on a Tuesday evening and lockdown begins at midnight. With the Delta strain it absolutely makes sense that we cannot open schools up for collections so once again we see the realities of a continuing digital divide. Thankfully many schools are confident to move into online mode as many, if not all, students have a device and many school leaders are already prepared should another lockdown strike. However there is no denying that the digital divide exists. 

I don't know about you, but I want to live in a country where every school, and every student is connected. 

In a recent Stuff article, Principal Simonne ​Goodall ​said the "majority of kids do not have devices at home". At the decile 3 Randwick School in Lower Hutt, learning has ground to a halt this week for most of the school’s 140 children. My gut is that Randwick School is not alone and that many schools, are still not in a position to take teaching online.

In a the Rotorua Daily Post, Rotorua Girls’ High principal Sarah Davis said it was more difficult for some students to participate in online learning due to a range of factors. This included device sharing between family members, lack of internet connectivity and quiet space, students working from their phones and having to care for other siblings.

The picture above shows what one Auckland school is sending home this lockdown. With many families not having wifi and few devices the school opted to send a photocopied workbook and two pencils home. The only learning provided for this lockdown so far. 

Whilst we might have made some inroads, the digital divide is still very much a reality and quite frankly, it isn't good enough. 

At the heart of this is three glaring issues - inequitable access to devices, wifi and inconsistent preparation and leadership from the government, Ministry of Education and school leaders. And whilst many may say it a school leaders job to deal with the issue, until we remove the challenges and barriers to access once and for all, I don't believe we are in the position to really support and challenge our leaders and teachers to effectively address the issue. 

Now is the time to remove the barriers, so we can remove the excuses, and then we can get on and solve this issue!

The issues and the potential solutions

Devices - we need each and every young person to have a device of their own. At present we have schools who have 100% one to one devices through to schools with no devices owned by students and 100% reliant on hard packs for learning over lockdown. 

Ideally this is not solved by a one size all handout, it is best addressed by a mixture of students bringing their own (which many already are) and the rest being supported by either a subsidised or some fully funded device scheme. Most if not all schools work with Microsoft, Google, Apple or a combination of all three. I believe that the Ministry of Education needs to partner with these tech giants and the likes of Network for Learning and NetSafeNZ to provide a mixture of subsidised and fully funded devices that meet the needs of individual schools and students. In the past, and in other countries, device rollouts have failed when they are 'one device to rule them all' with little consideration of whether or not it fits the needs of the individual. We also know that students and whanau having "skin in the game" and feeling a genuine sense of ownership of the device is key. To this end, I think we need a mixture of solutions, many are in a position to buy and bring their own device, others may need a subsidised lease to own solution and some may need a fully funded device. Let's open an online shopfront, managed by likes of Network for Learning (N4L), who already have the relationship with schools, in partnership with the likes of The Warehouse and Noel Leeming and supported by Microsoft, Google and Apple and further supported and NetSafe. Enable choice, enable mechanisms that remove excuses whilst maintaining dignity!

Wifi - in June 2020 it was estimated 145,000 students were living without a wifi connection, to put this into context there are about 825,000 students in New Zealand. That's approximately one in six students without a connection! That doesn't even take in to account those with limited or unreliable wifi. My guess would be closer to one in four have little of no wifi access. 

Last year saw the Ministry of Education fumble and scramble to hand out modems to schools, many being supplied to student who did not need them. Interestedly, Network for Learning (N4L) (who provide internet connection to schools) have already piloted an alternative solution that enables students to connect to the wifi via a hotspot that is managed by the school and N4L. You can see in the video below how this would work, and also my vote of for getting on and fixing the issue! Let n4L work with schools and where there are problems with wifi connection, let's just do it.

School leaders and teachers - A very real part of the issue is the variability of leadership in this space. There has been, for many years, a number of school communities and leaders have worked against the odds to solve this issue. Communities like the fabulous Manaiakalani with leaders such as Russell and Dorothy Burt have shown that with hard work, great strategy and powerful partnerships, that the digital divide can be closed. Similarly we have seen schools such as Sylvia Park School show that decile does not determine digital access. Great leaders can make it happen. My concern is that in leaving it to the leaders we are not going to solve the issue quickly enough. Personally I believe EVERY school leader should have a digital strategy and should be pulling out all the stops to getting our young people connected, but I am aware that there can be a myriad of reasons why this might not be possible and quite frankly school leaders are doing increasing busy and complex work and they too deserve support in solving this issue.  

My suggestion is that we need to solve the devices and the wifi access, then and only then, we will be in a position to really step up both the expectations and support to ensure all leaders and teachers understand what effective online learning looks like. Sort the devices, sort the wifi and then bring back the ICTPD packages of the past that enables schools to work in the kahui ako or networks of choice to rapidly up-skill our leaders and teachers. 

The very real cost of a digital divide

And remember the digital divide has economic costs overall. Access to reliable internet is also a strong predictor of economic opportunity. We also know that the digital divide impacts some groups more than others. The tables and comments below come from 'Digital inclusion and wellbeing in New Zealand' report at digital.govt.nz 

Our findings relating to internet access and exclusion replicate a number of existing findings for New Zealand. In particular, we find that Pasifika, Māori, those living in larger country towns, and older members of society are comparatively less likely to have internet access.

We find also that people living in social housing, unemployed people, those not actively seeking work, and disabled individuals are more likely than others to lack internet access. Some people who are unemployed and some who are not actively seeking work may be disengaged from other aspects of society. They are also likely to suffer severe financial constraints, so their lack of internet access is not surprising. Their lack of access may also not be particularly amenable to policy intervention other than by helping these individuals find secure employment.

Source: https://www.digital.govt.nz/dmsdocument/161~digital-inclusion-and-wellbeing-in-new-zealand/html#6.-results:-wellbeing-and-the-internet 

And whilst you might be concerned about the cost, consider that we have already rolled out a healthy school lunches programme that is being held up as highly successful. This programme costs approximately $150 per student per month. If you consider time in lockdown where this programme is paused, we could redirect these costs and cover most if not all device costs. It's not a solution, but it could take some of the heat around funding. 

But also before we worry about the cost of funding the suggestions above, we need to also consider the very real cost of inaction.

Whether we consider the young people falling behind in the learning, or the loss of connection with their peers and school community. We also know this divide has impacts that go well beyond education. Closing the digital divide isn't just about a very necessary hand up, internationally it has been recognised as the key to improving social and economic outcomes for all. We need to invest in our young people to invest in all of our futures.

Peter Robinson the President and CEO US Council for International Business has described the imperative as a “win-win for business and governments”, explaining that “if properly nurtured, digital connectivity can help spur social and economic betterment, while also creating business opportunities."

Now is the time to ensure that EVERY young person regardless of their school and postcode can stay connected to their learning, and not just survive but thrive! Many students have access to devices, many homes have wifi, but if we genuinely care about inclusive education that genuinely puts each and every young person at the centre of their educational experience, we need to equip them, and get on supporting all teachers and leaders to amplify learning and supporting learning relationships online. Come on Aotearoa - let's close the digital divide!!


Ministry of Education: Subsidised or free digital devices for all students in NZ! 


References and recommended reading: 









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