I had the privilege of attending the official launch of the “Nelson Loop” at Nayland College today. The library was filled with a range of people, all of whom had a connection in some way or other in making the ‘Loop’ a reality – including policy makers, technicians, network experts, government reps etc.
Photos above show (left to right) Nayland Principal, Charles Newton welcoming the group; NZ ICT icons Murray Brown, Carol Moffatt and Marg McLeod; Nayland students taking advantage of the high speed connection; and Minister of Education, Steve Maharey, addressing the crowd.
In his speech Minister Maharey spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of advanced networks such as the ‘Loop’, describing ways in which, when used appropriately, these could support the personalising of learning, and contribute to NZ’s goals of becoming a knowledge society. He referred to the goal of having all of these regional loops linked to the KAREN network, enabling a high-speed connection across the whole of NZ in the form of a National Education Network.
All of this rings true with me – I’m a self-confessed enthusiast for the benefits these advanced networks can bring – but I am also concerned. I am concerned that, amid the hype and enthusiasm for this sort of thing we are in grave danger of trivialising the true costs involved in establishing these networks. It’s one thing to have established a national backbone (KAREN), and another to create local loops such as has been achieved in Nelson. But the story doesn’t end there. there’s still the issue of connecting schools to the fibre networks (not a trivial expense), and then, assuming that that is a straight forward task, there is the state of the internal networks in schools, most of which simply won’t have a robust enough infrastructure to cope with the significantly increased network speeds.
And as if that’s not enough – having made the physical connections and paid for these one-off installation costs, there is the cost of ongoing operation of these networks – the ISP connections, service access, security etc. etc.
I have two main concerns about this currently. In all cases in NZ at the moment, the development of these ‘local loops’ (urban fibre networks etc) is being achieved through various school/business/government partnerships – generally with a key business sponsor providing the seed-funding for the initial group of schools connecting. This reveals my first concern – the general lack of a plan for sustainability or scalability beyond the initial pilot. Without such a plan we are in grave danger of things stalling – and at worst, with a few privileged schools connected and the rest without the opportunity.
My second concern relates to the fact that, with so much of the current effort going into the development of these loops being made voluntarily or without costs, it is difficult to establish exactly what the actual cost is for connecting a school to such a network. As it stands I fear we are in grave danger of under-estimating this cost. In the meantime, those schools that happen to be lucky enough to be close to a fibre loop, and who have the voluntary support of sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable personnel will achieve connection – while those who don’t, won’t. Simple as that.
If we’re to be genuinely committed to seeing NZ as a knowledge society participating fully in the global economy, with New Zealand school students being prepared with digital age skills and dispositions, then we need to ensure that we have the ‘bigger picture’ in mind as we’re developing these local pilots.