Private technology companies are rolling out free initiatives for students as Covid-19 highlights the importance of connectivity. Laura Walters takes a look at the opportunities for tech companies and what students get out of these programmes 

Depending on who you ask, Covid-19 has accelerated the move online by anywhere between three and 10 years.

Schools are one of the places where this has been felt the most, with 1.5 billion students affected across the world.

For many, the lack of access to reliable broadband internet presented a fundamental barrier.

And this digital divide – exacerbated by Covid-19 – has presented an opportunity for private companies to help bridge a gap, while also growing their customer base and influence.

Leading the way, is the country’s largest telco, Spark. Extending on a previously subsidised broadband scheme, the company will be offering thousands of low-income families free wifi access in homes, through an initiative targeting decile 1 schools.

A range of online schools and education technology companies, offering everything from NCEA revision through to interactive paperless solutions, have also identified the digitisation opportunity presented by Covid.

The 2018 census found 200,000 New Zealand households are without internet access. 

For some it is a choice – albeit often related to poor online literacy – but mostly, it’s a socioeconomic issue.

For students, the inability to access a reliable wifi or broadband connection could mean the difference between staying in school, and becoming disengaged and drifting away.

Without intervention from schools, community groups, government and the private sector during Covid-19 lockdowns, many of the children in households without internet would have lost connection with their peers, family and teachers; lost learning; and lost engagement.

“Connectivity’s the new oxygen.” – Grant McMillan

At Manurewa’s James Cook High School there was the added challenge of students moving houses.

While high rent prices meant transience wasn’t a new issue for the community, the justified fear following the measles epidemic meant parents sent their children to live with whānau or family in regional areas; away from South Auckland.

Principal Grant McMillan said before Covid-19, as much as 40 percent of the school’s 1300 students did not have reliable wifi or broadband where they were living. When Covid hit, this figure jumped to 60 percent.

The school worked with Spark, through its subsidised Skinny Jump initiative ($5 for 30GB per month), to get families connected. Post-Covid, the school was prepared to pay the $5 per month for each family without broadband, so its students could stay connected

McMillan said this type of cost was a no-brainer. 

“Connectivity’s the new oxygen.”

Free internet for decile 1 high school students

But on Tuesday, Spark will announce its new initiative, which will see all eligible families from seven decile 1 high schools given access to free broadband, from February 2021.

The initial cohort includes: Manurewa High School, Mangere College and James Cook High in South Auckland; Bishop Viard in Porirua; Wairoa College and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngāti Kahungunu o Te Wairoa in Wairoa; and Tolaga Bay Area School.

The plan is to roll out the Spark-Ciena partnership to all decile 1 high schools in term 2, and then look to other communities struggling to access reliable internet.

That means there’s no need for James Cook, and others like it, to pay thousands a year for home internet access for its students, or buy antennas and boosters so the community can hook up to the school’s wifi.

“It’s not about deprivation, it’s about opportunity and responsibility.” – Grant McMillan

“Our students are no less capable, no less deserving, charming, talented, responsible teenagers than anywhere else,” McMillan  said.

But because some of them didn’t have the same family connections or “cultural capital” as others across the region, school would be their best – and probably only – chance to get on the staircase.

In order to get the best chance at doing well at school, they needed to be connected – both during extraordinary times like Covid, and beyond.

“It’s not about deprivation, it’s about opportunity and responsibility. 

“We need to make sure they’ve got the same opportunities, and I’ve got the responsibility to make sure that happens. Because otherwise, I’ve defrauded an entire generation.”

The announcement comes at a time when there is a rising call for universal free internet access.

As Newsroom reported in October, this call is premised in the concern that, increasingly, the digital divide is as harmful as every other poverty gap. 

Without internet connectivity, the elderly, those with disabilities, low-income families and many others struggle to get access to basic public services. The internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity.

There have been moves towards access across the country’s 66,000 state homes.

For Spark, the initial focus is on students.

It’s about connectivity, not technology

However, internet access for students comes with a disclaimer: connectivity and online technology does not, in and of itself, lift achievement.

Education professor John Hattie is skeptical about the use of technology in education.

“We have been through phases of providing ipads to all students and many teacher cupboards are full of them, barely used.”

Of more than 200 meta-analyses on the effect on teaching and learning, technology was found to have low effects – it barely impacted the traditional grammar of teaching, he said.

“We were looking purely for the learning and communication lens. We hadn’t thought about the social good. Or the family strengthening lens.” –

But Covid-19 had shown the powers of social media to better hear how students were thinking aloud, reducing the amount of time teachers were talking and giving more time to students learning, Hattie said.

“Students are more likely to use social media to talk about what they do not know, do not understand, and teachers are learning the power of hearing this thinking.”

A decade ago, many thought bringing technology into the classroom would lift achievement. But it’s the enabling of connection, communication and engagement with family, friends and teachers that appear to have the biggest impact when kids are out of the classroom.

McMillan said learning was relational; students need to remain connected.

This connection had positive learning outcomes, in that students did not lose their learning so long as they stayed engaged with school. 

But one of the biggest, and unforeseen, advantages was the ability to improve networks of support and resilience.

“We were looking purely for the learning and communication lens. We hadn’t thought about the social good. Or the family strengthening lens.”

Altruism or company growth?

Despite these advantages of connectivity, Hattie is also skeptical about universal broadband for school students. “It sounds like a plea from technology companies,” he said.

Covid-19 has highlighted this need for connectivity, as well as shining a spotlight on the existing gaps. And the private sector has no doubt seen this connectivity gap as an opportunity.

Universal broadband sounds like an obvious next step. But it’s also worth asking what this means for the telcos and other private edtech companies, who are using this opportunity to access more customers.

McMillan described his approach as “cynical, but also appreciative and positive”.

He believed there was an element of “future banking”.

“If we put a product out to young people in their formative time, they learn how to rely on the product. We know they will be future consumers.”

And it couldn’t hurt companies when it came to their brand, and building goodwill with both communities and with the Government, McMillan said.

But there was definitely a degree of altruism. Most people wanted to try to make a difference.

“If our community, in an honest and respectful way, can benefit from a corporate entity trying to make a difference, but also trying to position themselves for their next big thing…. I don’t mind,” he said.

As long as everyone was open and transparent, it was a “win-win-win”.

“But mostly, it’s equity: giving people a fair chance to be able to succeed.” – Grant McMillan

Spark chief executive Jolie Hodson said the Ciena Jump Fund wasn’t a commercial proposition. It was about doing the right thing.

This was an opportunity for a big company to give back to community, and remove a barrier to kids learning.

If students don’t have access, an entire generation of Kiwis could be left behind, Hodson said.

With that connectivity, those students and their families could build the skills they needed to succeed at school, in work, and to help build a more productive economy – one that works faster, not harder.

“But mostly, it’s equity: giving people a fair chance to be able to succeed.”

Hodson said the Ciena Jump Fund was aligned with the work the Spark Foundation had been doing over the past four years in regards to bridging the digital divide.

Covid-19 just highlighted that need, and accelerated the company’s plans.

“And sometimes those crises give an opportunity for a call to arms and an acceleration of the work that needs to happen. 

“And sometimes with it, falls away some of the barriers that may have prevented these things occurring.”

Through Covid-19 the public, private and community sectors had come together to provide a less fragmented approach to digitisation and connectivity, she said.

Growth across education technology sector

It’s not only telcos that have seen the obvious gap, and opportunity, in the education digitisation space.

During the past few months, there has been a string of press releases from online schools and education technology companies keen to talk about their products, their growth through Covid, and the free subscriptions they’ve been offering schools throughout the pandemic.

It’s no surprise existing companies have leveraged off this year’s events to grow, and gain more customers.

One of those companies is Kami.

The New Zealand-based PDF and document annotation application removes the need for paper in the classroom.

Kami chief executive and co-founder Hangjie Wang said the company had grown from being used by about 6 million students before February’s global lockdowns, to about 21 million.

That was still a far cry from the 1.5 billion students affected by Covid-19, but throughout the pandemic, the Kiwi company had positioned itself as one of the top five education technology tools in the world.

This included 1200 schools in New Zealand, as well as thousands around North America, Europe and Asia.

“If you help folks, generally you’re rewarded for it later, one way or another.” – Hengjie Wang

Like other education technology companies, Kami was offering free subscriptions to all New Zealand and United Kingdom schools indefinitely.

Wang said this was about doing the right thing.

“We’ve always been about making sure we do right by the kids and by the teachers first.”

But he also acknowledged that Covid-19 had been a growth opportunity for his company.

“If you help folks, generally you’re rewarded for it later, one way or another,” he said.

“I don’t know how, and at that time we didn’t really care.”

It was about making an immediate decision to minimise disruption, and help students and teachers.

Those companies that paused to think about their bottom line were left behind, he said.

Classroom digitisation not without risks

But when industries undergo sudden spikes, there are risks. 

In this case, there was a risk that a lack of resources and expertise in schools could lead to students and teachers using products not designed for education, poorly designed tools, or those without the necessary data privacy protections.

Schools in New Zealand didn’t have dedicated technology integration specialists, as was the norm in some countries. This meant thorough vetting didn’t always happen.

“Almost like a second digital divide between the rest of the world and New Zealand.”

And using the wrong technology had the potential to negatively affect learning.

Trying to digitise classrooms overnight was overwhelming, Wang said.

But when the right tools were used in the right way, technology could have a powerful impact on learning and engagement.

Wang said with Kiwis experiencing everyday school, while the rest of the world continued to be jolted through a significant digital transformation, there was a risk New Zealand schools could fall behind.

Over a five-year period a gap would form between New Zealand and those countries forced to keep digitising and innovating.

“Almost like a second digital divide between the rest of the world and New Zealand,” Wang said.

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