Closing the divide

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

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!!

Claire Amos

The quote above appears at the end of a blog post I read this week from Claire Amos, principal at Albany Senior High School. A few years ago I had the privilege of working alongside Claire on the 21st Century Working Group which worked to provide a report with recommendations to government. One of those recommendations was that government should work to achieve equitable access to digital devices for every learner.

Claire’s heart-felt plea in her post reflects the fact that, seven years later, we’re still not there. As she notes, the events of the COVID lockdown have exacerbated the frustrations of many educators as the impact of the divides between those with and those without has been exposed. To give impetus to her concerns Claire has initiated a petition, calling on the Ministry of Education to provide subsidised or free devices for all NZ students.

I want to say at the outset that I support Claire’s call, and have signed the petition. In this post, however, I want to make clear what signing this petition means. When a request such as this is made of the MoE (or any part of government), there are a whole lot of other issues and considerations that we must accept as a consequence – and be prepared to do something about. It is naive to think that simply providing a device will in and of itself address the issue of the digital divide for learners.

So when we ask for a digital device to be provided for every learner in New Zealand as a way of addressing the digital divide, we must understand that, by implication, we are also asking for the following to be addressed:

Physical connectivity

A device isn’t much use unless attention is paid to also providing the means for connecting to the internet, and how will this occur – at school, and at home (or other place of learning). While connection to schools is largely sorted, the connection to homes is where the real value and potential will be realised from providing every learner with a device. Solutions may include fibre, 4G or 5G network, jump modems, satellite or simply pairing over a mobile phone. All make connectivity possible, but each has its own set of limitations. For example, connecting fibre to the home under the UFB programme is generally done through a preferred internet service provider (ISP), but they generally require a minimum contract period (usually 12 months) which creates difficulty if you are a tenant on a short term tenancy. Mobile phone data is an expensive option once you go over your data plan cap.

Internet provision

Having the physical connection is one thing, but having a contract with an internet service provider is another. This is an additional expense that adds to the total cost of ownership of the device. Not only is this. a requirement for a home fibre connection to be installed, but signing up for a plan can often require a credit card and/or credit rating, which can be difficult for some, particularly many of those already on the wrong side of the digital divide, to provide.

Digital device

While it’s easy to say a device will be provided, the question becomes ‘what device’? While a Chromebook may be sufficient for most learners, it does require connectivity to the internet to operate effectively, and so a reliable, always-on connection (see above) must be guaranteed. Beyond that there. is such choice and consideration must be given to things like storage, processing speed and physical robustness as the decision is made. Then there are the issues of technical support, warranties and end-of-life disposal. Each must be considered in terms of the total cost of ownership of a device.

Platforms and services

Every device requires an operating system, and unless you want to venture into using LINUX, there. is generally a cost with that too. Things such as device management, internet filtering services, device security etc. are all important here. Most modern platforms and services are cloud-based which is and advantage in the way these services can be provided and updated, but they also come with risks that must be properly managed for. the device user.

Applications, data, content

In the world of the cloud access to applications (e.g. Office365, Google etc.) no longer requires the installation of unique pieces of software – they are all accessed online. Thus the absolute importance of online access at home as well as school. Other considerations must be given to some of the learning software that is being used. Many of these applications require the user to input personal information which is then stored in services which may be subject to cyber attacks. The selection and use of such applications based on the level of privacy and security provided is important. Learning content must. be considered too. It’s easy to simply ‘google’ for what we might use – but what considerations are given to the issue of copyright and digital use rights? Has the use of creative commons content been considered? And what about the content generated by the learners – where will this be stored, and who will have access to it?

Teaching and Learning

There’s much that needs to be considered here. Suffice to say, that the real value of providing a device rests with the digital capability of both the teachers involved and the students themselves – plus the parents/whānau who provide support at home. While there are excellent signs of great things happening here, there were certainly stories from the last lock-down of students being provided with devices that were hardly used due to a lack of thoughtfully designed online learning experiences, a lack of access to appropriate digital content, or lack of support to participate in appropriate ways. These are sills that need to be learned, practiced and developed further by all involved.

Safety and responsible use

An overarching concern for anyone using an internet capable digital device in the modern world is the exposure to risk as a result of cyber attacks that may result in the loss of personal information (identity theft) and personal data. Educational use is certainly not immune – in fact, the report on global threat activity over the past 30 days on the Microsoft website makes for sobering reading – see the graph below:

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While there are measures that can be taken to mitigate this risk, it is the responsibility of individual users to be vigilant in the way they configure and u se their devices, the sites they visit and applications they use to ensure maximum protection.

Beyond these sorts of risks are the issues associated with cyber-bullying. Users need to be educated in how they conduct themselves online, what they choose to post, how they choose to behave and respond to what others say. Choices made about what sites they visit, what groups they become members of and what things they choose to open and view online can all have serious consequences if not exercised with wisdom.

For some further help here, the recent Netsafe newsletter has some excellent guidance for parents and teachers regarding keeping our learners safe online, including how to minimise their own online risks and protect their personal information. In the newsletter, Netsafe has compiled some of their most popular resources and insights to help people relying more on virtual connections.

I’ve created a summary diagram (below) that captures this thinking. To see a larger view click here. The important thing represented by the links connecting each piece is that we must take a whole-of-system view when considering any single part of the chain. Thus, a device alone won’t solve the problem we are seeing to address, it is simply one piece of the puzzle.

A simple analogy might be my choice as a parent, to provide my child with a car. A great gesture, and one that brings the promise of freedom to travel and participate in a wide variety of experiences. But the car won’t go without fuel, and it has nowhere to go without a roading network. My child will be a liability as a driver without sufficient knowledge of what is required to drive in safety on the road. And the car is likely to have a shortened life and become unreliable if it isn’t regularly serviced and kept in good condition. You get the picture 🙂

So when we’re asking for the provision of digital devices for all students as a way of addressing the digital divide, we must be aware that, by inference, we are also asking for all of these other parts of the system to be addressed as well.

4 thoughts on “Closing the divide

    1. Indeed, Carolyn. You, of all people, deeply understand this with the great work you did with the FarNet community. So important we get the end-to-end thinking in place.

  1. Good stuff… I recall a former colleague of ours Jim Fergusson.. always held up 5 fingers when talking about the cost of a computer in schools .. only one of them was for the price of the computer Other parts included the stuff that goes around the device . as you have pointed out.

    Let me also comment that the MOE is well down the journey of providing the first stage of devices for those who are without computers – as part of their Learning From Home project – for which the catalyst for funding was Covid.

    To date…

    March 20 lockdown saw 26,000 devices sent out to students identified by their high schools as in need.

    Auckland August 20 saw an additional 8000 sent out

    August 21 has seen the acquisition of another 8000ish.

    That is 42,000 devices!

    100,000 wireless broadband modems with data plans were sent out to schools during 2020 (for distribution to their students.

    1000’s of hours were provided to support teachers work better in a distance education classroom.

    On-line software licenses have been provided by MOE for all state and integrated schools and students, for use at school and home.

    So with or without the petition, large steps are being taken… now covering most secondary schools’ identified student needs. Primary schools yet to be addressed.

    But as you have stated a once-off provision of devices is only a part of a sustainable future.

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