Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been pre-occupied with events here in Christchurch, and participation in various groups and projects aimed at providing assistance to schools here in the wake of the earthquake. This has involved everything from working at a local level to make online resources available, and provide support for teachers developing online courses, through to advocating for the fibre connections to schools, discussions around the development of an NEN and the future development of the VLN!
On Monday I attended a hui in Ashburton in support of the work of the Cantatech and Westnet clusters as they are working together to form a larger, combined cluster of schools sharing courses and resources in the virtual space. We had a great lineup of presenters, including Scott McLeod, Michael Barbour and Marg McLeod from the Ministry of Education, plus an awesome group of teachers who presented what they’d done in their action-research projects to date.
A common theme in all of this activity has been an emphasis on the significance of being connected as schools and school communities, of becoming a part of a community and not an isolated island, and of leveraging the power and support of digital technologies to make all of this happen. An essential underpinning of it all is the provision of UltraFast Broadband to all parts of New Zealand.
Following the day in Ashburton I was sent a link to a recent publication from Australia by Trevor Storr, the e-Learning director in the CantaNET project. titled Connecting Communities: The impact of broadband on communities in the UK and its implications for Australia, this white paper by Tim Williams provides some extremely useful insights into the potential uses and benefits of broadband. There’s a lot of excellent stuff in the paper about the benefits – long term and short term – including some excellent statements about the benefits for rural areas and the connected communities concept (which applies to our VLN here in NZ).
I won’t go into a full review of it here (you can download and read it for yourself) apart from drawing attention to one key part that appears on page 54 in the section titled Reflections and Key Issues, Williams writes:
Rollout is not enough
“My own lesson from my encounter with this world is that money and lengths of fibre are necessary but not sufficient factors to deliver the broader transformation augured by technology. Broadband is as broadband does. ‘rollout’ is necessary but not sufficient without ‘roll up’! ‘rollout’ suggests that success in implementing a ‘national broadband network’ is a purely technical matter, with access achieved when inputs are committed. ‘roll up’ speaks to the need to understand that success is achieved when the passive notion of ‘enabling access’ is replaced by an active reaching out to people to actually use this new tool – with a myriad of unforeseen consequences for well-being, as much as increases in GdP. And doing this requires imagination as well as organisation and a passion for involving people – in all their differences and complexity – in the process of delivery and change.”
The point is one we need to take notice of here in NZ. The roll-out of the fibre connectivity is only a part of the equation. We must stand ready with the ‘roll-up’ solutions, including effective professional development programmes and a preparedness to re-examine existing policies that may become redundant or act as barriers to progress.
Williams recommends the selection of a National Digital Champion, and a group of ‘third sector digital champions’ to help drive this all forward (based on the UK experience). Again, this is something we could well do with learning from here in NZ, particularly if some of these champions were placed on the ground in regional areas where their opportunities for working with local communities is enhanced. The successful approach, in my view, is providing a balance between regional development initiatives that are driven from the grass-roots and a national coordination that has the where-with-all to take on the policy and strategic issues at a government level. Such groups/representatives must find ways of working together in the ‘connected’ world they are advocating.