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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.
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  2. I admit I plucked this number out of thin air. The precise size isn’t the important issue here. ↩︎

Getting more New Zealanders online is the government’s goal with its Digital Inclusion Blueprint. The plan is to bridge the digital divide and make sure people don’t miss out as more and more vital services move on to the internet.

Government Digital Services Minister Megan Woods launched the blueprint on Friday.

She says: “Some people can’t easily apply for jobs as many recruitment processes start online. Kids may be prevented from doing their homework.

“Others could feel isolated from more digitally savvy friends and family who communicate using social media. We want to ensure no one is left out or left behind as more and more of our lives move online.”

Life hard without a connection

She is right. It is already hard to do simple everyday things without an internet connection. It will get harder.

Even something as simple as arranging for a council rubbish pick-up or buying insurance is difficult without an internet connection.

We tend to underestimate the number of New Zealanders without internet access. In part that’s because of the way government collects official information. Much of it is now done through the web.

When it isn’t, officials often collect data by phone. The problem here is that people without home internet connections are often the same people who don’t have mobile phones.

More offline than you might think

At the 20/20 Trust, Bill Dashfield says at least 11 percent of the population do not use the internet. This group is likely to include older, poorer, rural and non-Pākehā New Zealanders. That makes for a digital divide.

Woods says: “Access to online service is a key priority is one of my priorities and an area Government has already invested in. For example, the Prime Minister recently announced $21 million funding for Regional Digital Hubs (RDHs) in towns to connect local people and businesses to digital services.

This is a good start. It helps that the government supported ultra-fast broadband programme now extends further into rural New Zealand. Eventually about 85 percent of the country will get fibre. Almost everyone else will have better broadband, either in the shape of fixed wireless or improved copper connections.

InternetNZ Jordan Carter zoomed in on one aspect of the divide in a press release.

Call for action on digital divide

He says; “We welcome, in particular, the development of Te Whata Kōrero. It’s a call to action for tāngata whenua to work alongside the government to provide leadership on digital inclusion”.

Moreover, he nails the biggest problem: funding.

Previous governments managed to find close to $2 billion to build UFB and the other broadband improvement projects. Now it has to earmark money to make sure everyone can reap the benefits of fibre and other fast broadband technologies.

The good news is it won’t cost anything like $2 billion. Even five percent of that will pay for a lot of small local initiatives. Small projects are the best way to get people across the digital divide. It will be a lot cheaper than maintaining offline government services for jobs that are better done online.

Let’s hope there are funds in the budget to pay for this.

cloud

Network for Learning says ‘moving to the cloud’ is on the to-do list for many New Zealand schools. Here’s the first of a series of posts I’ve written for the N4L blog that aim to demystify the cloud and how to make use of it. It’s written for a non-technical audience.

“Cloud computing is using remote computers for jobs that were once done by local machines.

We call it cloud because the computers are somewhere else on the internet. Most of the time you don’t need to know where they are.

When the idea was first developed, people would draw diagrams to illustrate how it worked. They used pictures of clouds to show the remote computers could be anywhere. The image and the metaphor stuck.”

Read more at The Cloud.

As education minister, Hekia Parata upset New Zealand’s tech sector by not elevating digital technology teaching to the level they asked for.

The debate hasn’t stopped.

It may never stop. The technology industry is wealthy and powerful. It knows how to lobby. It is a master of using the media. Its voice will be heard.

It has a good point.

Digital curriculum

There’s a strong case for giving digital technology a greater share of the curriculum.

Digital technology doesn’t belong in a vocational ghetto alongside woodwork and other non-academic subjects.

While there is a case for non-academic digital education, technology also needs to be taught to a higher standard.

But let’s not carried away. Whether you call it digital literacy or technology it should not be on a par with language or maths teaching.

They are fundamental.

Although you might argue the same about technology’s role in the modern world, that’s not quite true.

Literacy and digital, different aspects of the same thing

You can’t do digital well without being able to read and communicate.

Without reading skills a young person’s digital experience can’t advance far beyond taking selfies, playing games and watching streamed video.

Most digital devices are, one way or another, communications tools.

Even if the tools evolve to the point where an ability to write or type is no longer essential, people still need basic communications skills.

If the goal is to encourage more young New Zealanders into technology careers, they need to be articulate and numerate to cope with the work.

At a pinch you can train a literate, articulate adult to work in almost every tech industry role. Although it may not be impossible to find meaningful work for those without those skills, it will be harder.

Education bigger picture

Education has be about more than preparing people for the workplace. Digital skills are important for every other aspect of life.

Which brings us to the most important aspect of technology education: the digital divide.

We often think the digital divide is only about access to devices, tools and networks. It is usually framed as something that affects poorer or more remote New Zealanders.

Yet there’s another divide that’s just as bad.

People who feel unable to perform even basic digital tasks because they lack the skills are as disadvantaged as those who can’t get online.

The same goes for people who can’t read, write or otherwise communicate. We don’t call that a digital divide, but it amounts to something similar. Let’s call it the literacy divide.

It’s great that we devote money, time and energy to helping people get across the digital divide. More power to those working in this area.

Yet we also need to use the same vigour to deal with the basic literacy divide because those people are in the same dark place.

So, by all means ramp up digital education, but not at the expense of something that’s more fundemental.

Spark jump low-cost fixed wireless broadband

Spark New Zealand will give subsided low-cost fixed wireless broadband to at least 5000 struggling families.

The families will each get 30GB of data a month for $15 on a pre-paid, no fixed-term Spark Jump contract. The price also includes a modem.

Spark will use Skinny Broadband. The company’s no-frills subsidiary offers wireless broadband using the 4G mobile network.

Risk of digital exclusion

The company says it won’t pick which families get the subsidised broadband service. Community groups and government agencies will identify families at risk of digital exclusion.

Simon Moutter, Spark’s managing director, says: “We believe New Zealand children deserve to have the opportunity to learn and thrive in the modern digital economy. Spark Jump is our way of helping solve this digital divide, by ensuring children have digital access both at school and in the home.

He says Spark wants to use technology to unleash the potential in all New Zealanders.

Families in Christchurch and Auckland have taken part in a successful pilot in recent months.

Spark’s registered charity, the Spark Foundation will partner with local community-based organisations. These groups will identify eligible families.

Manaiakalani Education Trust

Spark Foundation chair Nick Leggett says the project developed from a four-year partnership with the Manaiakalani Education Trust.

He says: “Our work with Manaiakalani has shown that the lack of home broadband is a barrier to New Zealand children’s learning and that whanau engagement plays a big role in children’s educational success.

“By enabling whanau to support digital learning with home broadband, we can help build on the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to improve broadband access within schools, through the rollouts of ultrafast fibre and the Network for Learning (N4L) managed network.”

Spark says the aim to provide services for at least 5,000 families in the next year. It plans to work with government agencies to extend the project’s reach.

New Zealand’s digital divide

While Spark’s contribution is welcome, it highlights the problem getting broadband to poorer New Zealanders. It’s great news for the 5,000 or so Spark Jump families.

Yet by some estimates, that is one-tenth of the number of poorer New Zealanders who don’t have broadband. The 2013 NZ Census reports there were 62,000 households with school-aged children which said they did not have home broadband or which did not specify whether they had broadband.  

Broadband exclusion a problem for schools and teachers dealing with students from poorer homes. Computers and other digital tools are now commonplace in the classroom. Most schools have fast fibre broadband. Schools often ask students to work on digital projects. That’s fine during the school day. But while better-off children can go home and continue their work, poorer students don’t have the opportunity.