Connectivity and devices

iPhoto by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In a recent webinar with a group of school leaders I was discussing their approaches to hybrid learning. At one point the issue of digital equity was raised, with one principal asking what was being done at a national level here in NZ to provision students with digital devices and internet connectivity. She went on to explain that in her school many of the students don’t have access to a device, and that she simply doesn’t have the funds available to support them – or to invest in some of the digital applications that may be helpful to support their learning.

This sort of conversation is not uncommon, and neither is the request for government funding as a solution to the problem. It highlights the extent of the continuing digital equity issue in NZ. But finding a solution is a complex issue, and requires some significant changes in the way we work as a system to resolve things. Simply ‘turning on the tap’ of government funding won’t necessarily address the areas of real need or provide the complete solution.

The extent of these issues was highlighted for me when reading the recently released report from the Ministry of Education regarding the Provision of Connectivity and Devices during COVID.

The report contains extensive detail about the Ministry of Education’s response during 2020 to provide digital devices and internet connectivity to those who didn’t have this so that they could participate online during the lockdown period.

The report details how in the 2020 emergency response the Ministry attempted to provide 80,000 learners in 45,000 households with internet connectivity. In addition, 36,000 learners received devices (laptops, Chromebooks, iPads). This included 9,000 devices being provided to Year 11 to 13 learners in decile 1 to 3 schools, and 6,000 devices for Year 11 to 13 learners, in decile 4+ schools.

The sections in the report detail findings about the links between device access and engagement, achievement and progress; impact on learner wellbeing and the social, cultural, and economic benefits for recipient learners and their whānau.

Not surprisingly, schools that had extensively developed their teaching practice towards a digital or online pedagogy prior to lockdown had a smoother transition into lockdown compared to those that had limited experience with this pedagogy.

It is encouraging to read that that many of the the changes in pedagogical practice that emerged during lockdown were continued after students returned to school (e.g. teachers posted more classwork online, offered blended learning that supported learners who were away from the classroom, and helped with communications with whānau.)

Less than encouraging was the finding that universal, educationally functional, digital access has not been sustained over the year, noting that a significant proportion of 2020 device-recipients (over half) had to return their device to school after the initial 2020 lockdown.

I commend the Ministry for publishing this report and transparency it provides around what was done and reports on both the good and the bad in the process. The findings must be read within the understanding that this was what happened as part of an emergency response, and not as the result of a strategically planned process, and so the honest reporting of both successes and failures provides valuable information that we can learn from.

The thing that stands out for me the most from the report is just how impacted we are by the lack of ‘systemness’ here in NZ. Our persistence with operating as independent entities works against us when a system response is required at times such as this.

For example, the fact that the MoE doesn’t have access to student data at a system level was a major impediment to them being able to respond with more speed and with more precision in terms of identifying where the needs actually are. Instead, because this data is captured within each school, the process that took just days in other jurisdictions took months here in NZ, with significant issues about the reliability of the data upon which decisions were made as evidenced in this report.

As the report highlights also, while a great deal of emphasis was given to the provision of devices and connectivity, the actual benefits this provided were highly variable, ranging from significant shifts in practice that are being sustained, to examples of devices being delivered but not being used, or at best, being used simply during the lockdown and then returned.

As we reflect on what this data is telling us, and consider now what we might do as a strategic, whole of system response, it is essential that we consider the ‘end to end’ picture of what is required to support and sustain a highly effective, digitally enabled education system.

This is the conclusion reached in the research I undertook into the response of education systems to the COVID lockdowns. In that report I represented the notion of systemness in the image below:

image: CC 2021 Derek Wenmoth

As the image reveals, it’s all too easy to identify just one area and focus on that (e.g. let’s give all students a device), but without consider the dependencies across the whole system, simply providing a device won’t guarantee anything in terms of impact on student learning.

If we’re to take anything from this MoE report, it must be that it’s time for us to move away from being precious about the particular platforms, services and solutions we have (or haven’t) established in the context of our own settings and look to the benefits of being part of a wider ecosystem of digital provision and support.

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