3 min read

Covid reveals worrying education digital divide

Sooner or later New Zealand schools will close their doors to help slow the Covid-19 outbreak. Some schools have already had temporary closures.

In place of classroom lessons students will be asked to log-on from home and continue some of their education.

Yet at least one-in-five New Zealand school students won’t be able to join those lessons. The educational digital divide is real.

That’s the number of homes without internet access. The 2018 census found 340,000 households, 21 percent of the total did not have an internet connection.

‘Households’ may not be the exactly the same as ‘households with school age children’. It’s near enough.

150,000 students on wrong side of educational digital divide

In round numbers this means about 150,000 school students will be locked out.

Likewise many students don’t have suitable personal devices to connect. A home device may be shared by many family members.

We’ve known about the digital divide for a long time. It’s getting better and there are initiatives1 to improve matters.

The digital divide is a national disgrace. The Covid-19 virus came knocking and we have been found unprepared.

There’s more than one digital divide. Some rural areas remain unconnected. Other areas have poor network connections. Old people are often locked out too.

Fixing digital divide easier than fixing poverty

Yet the digital divide usually comes down to poverty. For families struggling to put bread on the table and a roof over heads, computers and internet access are an unaffordable luxury.

This is about politics. It should not be this way.

We’ll leave the ideological and economic arguments aside. Today the most important question is how can the unconnected take part in a society and education system that is going to be home-based in the immediate future.

There are no simple answers. And there are no quick answers.

While there are projects designed to help, they are patchy and lack funding. They don’t reach far enough into that missing 20 percent.

There isn’t enough time to ramp these programmes up to accommodate the tens of thousands of children who will soon be learning from home without 21st century teaching aids.

Government money

New Zealand’s government has committed NZ$12 billion to fighting the likely economic impact of Covid-19.

It would take NZ$100 million2 to equip each of the 150,000 school students who don’t have access.

This money would include a basic, but serviceable device and internet access for three months. If the crisis continues, subsiding internet access might cost $1 million a month. Perhaps less, 150,000 school children live in fewer than 150,000 homes.

This may not be the right answer to the problem. I’ve used it to illustrate the size of the problem and to put the cost into perspective.

There could be better ways to spend the money. I’d prefer to see more of it ploughed back in to the local economy than sent to tech giants who don’t even pay NZ taxes.

If you have a better idea, don’t keep it to yourself.

It’s never the right time

It’s probably too late to get all the ducks in a row for the coming wave of learning from home. Even if everything else was fine, and it isn’t, supply chain problems would make it hard to find 150,000 low cost devices in a hurry. There would be a huge number of last minute broadband installs.

As always we should have started sooner. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act now. By some accounts Covid-19 may come in waves. We might miss this one, yet have everything in place for the next wave.

This is not only about the educational digital divide. Having as many as possible of the most vulnerable 20 percent of the population connected to digital services from governments and private sector companies is going to improve lives. During the virus outbreak it could save lives.

  1. One of my favourites is the excellent Spark Jump programme that gives broadband access to less well off families. It uses fixed wireless broadband. It may look like this contradicts Covid–19: Fixed wireless broadband not up to the job but while fixed wireless isn’t great for binge-watching streaming TV, it is ideal for plugging coverage gaps in a hurry and more than enough for basic and educational needs.
  2. I admit I plucked this number out of thin air. The precise size isn’t the important issue here. ↩︎