While the pandemic has brought schools into a new technological era, the unintended consequences of online safety breaches and the digital divide may not be far behind

These strange couple of past years may have forced through some of the biggest changes the classroom has ever seen – namely, learning from home.

Across the world, the classroom has transformed from a physical structure to a digital idea, beamed from the teacher’s home to students, unrestrained by space or time.

Before that, the biggest change you might notice wandering into any random two New Zealand classrooms separated by decades and generations would be the shift from chalky blackboards to dry-erase whiteboards.

But when schools shut their gates across the world last year, they were forced to pick up new technology quick, whether they wanted to or not, and embark on a new business as usual for education.

Here in New Zealand, schools this year were able to operate as normal and in-person up until August, when Delta finally crossed the border and Level 4 was called across the country.

What followed was months of online learning for Auckland students – and a quick assimilation to what has become the new normal for much of the world.

And even as lockdowns open up and the country moves into the next phase of the pandemic, it seems that the genie of remote learning is out of the bottle, and the tool schools were forced to pick up to deal with lockdown will now remain in relatively easy reach.

Digital education experts say there are pros and cons to this future, and teaching kids how to wield the internet safely and effectively will be paramount – along with addressing the digital divide, which could exacerbate inequality if learning from home becomes de rigueur.

Dave Cameron is the founder and CEO of digital learning platform LearnCoach. In his former life as a secondary school teacher, he saw his students struggling and wanted do something about lifting up educational outcomes for young people in New Zealand.

Launching in 2012, his company gives students round-the-clock access to online tutorials, from the classroom, at the dining room table or propped up against a pillow in bed.

But since the beginning of the global pandemic, this digital component of learning has grown from being something supplementary to often the core of the learning process.

Cameron says concerns students without equitable access to technology could be left behind shouldn’t be overlooked.

“We cannot ignore that there is a digital divide present in New Zealand,” he said. “We have however seen initiatives and priorities put in place by the Government to ease the issue, such as the rollout of modems and devices for students without access, since the start of lockdown back in 2020.”

The threat of technology over-reliance widening the gap between the haves and have-nots has been discussed in Parliament, with Minister for Education Chris Hipkins commenting on the inequitable impacts of distance learning during the October 18 Cabinet review of alert levels.

“The decision to maintain distance learning for children and young people will have a disproportionately negative impact on Māori, Pacific, and disabled learners, and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Hipkins said.

LearnCoach CEO Dave Cameron can see the pros and cons of a shift to a hybrid learning model. Photo: Supplied

At the forefront of education’s digital evolution, Cameron and LearnCoach have published a series of surveys collecting responses from students across the country on a range of issues, from the stresses of the life of a modern high school student to how they feel about remote learning.

The Term 4 student survey showed 46 percent of students were excited to get back into the classroom and be surrounded by their peers, suggesting it’s either a polarising concept, or at least one for which many students can think of plenty of pros and cons.

The findings showed a fairly even split between NCEA students who felt positive or neutral towards remote learning (49 percent) versus those who viewed it negatively (51 percent).

“They want a balance between in-person and remote learning, while still maintaining that social aspect to prosper within their classroom,” Cameron said. “With lockdowns lifting, we need to continue to support technology and the important role it has grown to play amongst education as the result of the pandemic.”

What’s complicated about remote learning is that it means something different to every student. While some young people thrive off the independence and have the space and resources at home to go at it, others struggle to stay motivated in isolation or may not have the technology or space at home to keep up with their classmates.

“If remote learning is incorporated into students’ learning in the future, teachers will need to find a balance that allows students into the classroom as 55 percent of students admitted to finding more distractions and falling behind when learning from home,” Cameron said.

But at the same time, remote learning could be the fix the education system needs for students who don’t cope well with rigid daytime hours or inflexible study obligations.

“Remote learning mends the narrative that all students’ personal lives are run on the same timeline. It allows those who aren’t as fortunate to have as much spare time as others, with the flexibility to complete their studies at a time that suits their schedule,” Cameron said. “While some students are able to leave school and use weekdays or weekend time to study, others may need to use that period of time to work to support their families.”

Bob Drummond, co-founder of remote learning platform Kami, says the company has seen an immense surge in usage since the early days of the pandemic. Photo: Supplied

But whether the pros of remote learning outweigh the cons or vice versa, one thing expert voices in the field can agree on is that it isn’t going anywhere.

Bob Drummond is the executive chairman and co-founder of Kami, an online document annotation tool. The company started out without a particular education focus but then found it was an area with fertile demand for ways to communicate and teach online.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kami has seen over 1000 percent growth in their business as schools around the world have picked them up.

“We had a huge surge in usage when schools shut down and they had to move classrooms online,” he said. “Technology like ours or Zoom allowed teachers to keep engaging with students during lockdowns.”

While many schools overseas are back in person, he says usage of the platform didn’t dip back down.

Like many aspects of the pandemic, New Zealand being on a delayed timeframe thanks to being able to hold off the virus for longer means we can look to other countries to find out what we can expect in the future, whether it’s a new variant or a new way to get on with life during a global pandemic.

Drummond thinks the changes to the classroom are here to stay.

“Classrooms are the centre of your learning, but technology blows the doors off,” he said. “Digital technology can distort time and space.”

An example of this at play could be a teacher giving feedback during a test or after an assignment – within the classroom, their attention towards each individual student is diffused across the group. Drummond argues that with a digital approach, it’s easier for the teacher to provide an explanation and provide feedback to a student rather than just marking something with a big fat F.

This, along with generational shifts and the rapid obsolescence of old skills in the new age, is changing the teacher’s role from simply being a gatekeeper of knowledge – a difficult role to play in the age of Google in every pocket.

Drummond said schools need to be producing a next generation that is able to use new technologies.

“That’s another reason why technology needs to be part of the learning process,” he said. “Every Gen Z knows how to bring up TikTok on their phone, but it doesn’t mean they know how to use new technologies to actually understand and apply things in a job.”

And with the young people of today predicted to change careers more often in the future, it seems adaptability will be at a premium in the years to come.

“The whole model that you learn and then you work is already gone in most industries,” Drummond said. “People will be learning for their whole lifetimes.”

But even if leaning into remote learning can help set up this generation for the future, there is still the spectre of inequality hovering over the entire plan.

“The first prerequisite is to solve the digital divide,” Drummond said. “When not every kid has a device and it’s put on the parents, or when kids turn up all with a different device and the teacher is expected to figure out how doing anything productive is going to work.”

He said instead of finger-pointing about who should be getting whom a device, the Government needs to take leadership in this area.

“There should be a goal of one device for every kid in every classroom,” he said. “A safe device, controlled by the school.”

As kids spend more and more time in the online world, the idea of online safety grows in importance.

Larrie Moore is the CEO of Network 4 Learning, a Crown company that connects schools across the country to a safe and reliable network and advocates for online safety.

Moore said as schools move to hybrid learning – learning at school and home, but also places in between – N4L has shifted from looking at providing protection for school campuses to individual young people.

“All of those protections and safety filters we had in place at the schools need to move with them,” he said. “We need to be as thoughtful about online safety at home as we are at school.”

This could mean a new responsibility for parents, who aren’t always able to look over their child’s shoulder when they are learning.

In a survey conducted by N4L in November, 88 percent of schools felt confident in their ability to protect students online – often by asking them to sign internet use agreements and using web filtering.

Despite this, many of them reported challenges around online safety, often stemming from students finding ways around filtering technology and the fact that popular website likes YouTube can display age-inappropriate images and videos.

Network 4 Learning CEO Larrie Moore said the new ability for students to learn online from home changes the demands of online safety education. Photo: Supplied

But with students being asked to access classes online from home, other issues come to the fore.

Almost 60 percent of schools reported the absence of home internet was impacting home learning – up from 25 percent in the 2018 survey.

Only 10 percent of schools reported that at least half of their students can’t access the internet from home, but almost a quarter of schools said at least half of their students can’t access a device of their own to use from home – suggesting a lot of students having to divide time on a family computer or device.

Smaller and lower decile schools were the most disadvantaged in both categories, with schools based in Northland, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua and Waikato less likely to have home access to internet or devices.

Schools sending students home to learn in these newfound ways afforded by shifting technology and forced upon them by a rapidly changing world may be something New Zealand sees more and more over the next decade.

But as the classroom becomes increasingly virtual, the consequences of the digital divide will become more and more prescient by year.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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