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Tackling the digital divide during COVID-19

COVID-19 lockdowns revealed the extent and impact of digital exclusion when schools had to pivot to distant learning. The Ministry of Education introduced a range of solutions to bridge the digital gap.

Case study background

This Ministry of Education case study is 1 of 4 in the 2020 report ‘Digital insights from the public service response to COVID-19’.

The report shares insights on digital capabilities required during the COVID-19 response, and what’s required to progress a unified digital public service.

The case studies are interviews with 4 different organisations to understand their challenges and successes in response to COVID-19 lockdowns in NZ.

Digital insights from the public service response to COVID-19

Case study insights

The Ministry of Education experience of working during COVID-19 lockdowns offers key insights.

  • Digital exclusion was a known issue for New Zealand, but COVID-19 revealed the scale in terms of the number of households and students without devices or connections.
  • Affordability of devices and connections was, and remains, a barrier to digital inclusion that needs to be overcome.
  • The low levels of IT hardware that NZ suppliers held in stock during COVID-19 created a supply chain issue when demand surged.
  • Working with Māori, iwi and community intermediaries during the COVID-19 lockdown was important to gather information and establish trust.
  • Central leadership is important for coordinating, intelligence-gathering, and giving advice and guidance.
  • Policies need to evolve for a digital age, and support the skills and capabilities of teachers.
  • Coordinated and accelerated action on digital inclusion is required.

Interview

The following people from the Ministry of Education were interviewed in this case study:

  • Stuart Wakefield — Chief Digital Officer
  • Ellen MacGregor-Reid — Deputy Secretary, Early Learning and Student Achievement
  • Katrina Casey — Deputy Secretary, Sector Enablement & Support
  • Shelley Des Forges — Policy Director and Director, Office of the Deputy Secretary, Graduate Achievement, Vocations and Careers.

They describe the Ministry of Education initiatives to tackle digital exclusion during COVID-19 as follows.

Connecting digitally-excluded homes

Our first step as the Ministry of Education was to identify school children without a digital connection. We discovered between 60,000 and 80,000 unconnected households where school children were living. Once we realised the extent of the inclusion gap, we had to do something.

We stepped into the space of connecting homes. This was not just about connecting individual households — we were dealing with incomplete services regionally. While we installed household copper or fibre connections, we also looked at installing satellite dishes as part of targeted responses. We also arranged for mobile base stations to be put in place in several locations to give disconnected communities service.

Removing the barrier of device and connection costs

We worked with internet service providers across New Zealand to remove the data cap for new connections, which led to lifting the cap on data for most connected households.

We needed to ensure that students had the devices they needed for distant learning. While there was some small financing available to help parents purchase devices, the Ministry of Education was the main provider of devices for those who didn’t have one. We prioritised the senior years (11, 12 and 13) and focused on low-decile schools, getting as many devices to them as we could. By November 2020, we had distributed over 16,000 school-owned devices to students and delivered over 25,000 new laptops, Chromebooks and iPads to students.

Addressing the lack of device supply in a surge

As we sourced additional devices, significant supply chain and logistical problems were exposed. IT suppliers and telecommunication operators (telcos) held low levels of inventory, and we quickly exhausted what was available.

We established a team to search globally for available equipment and a way to get it into the country. We made agreements through Singapore, with help from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to get additional shipments through to NZ. The supply chain issues had a ripple effect in the tertiary sector where students had difficulty buying portable devices.

Providing non-digital learning to increase inclusion

Because of the gap in connectivity, we could not rely on a digital response alone for learning — our non-digital response was also important. We delivered hundreds of thousands of hard packs of teaching and learning material directly to households. Staff members were responsible for the delivery of broadcasting and on-demand content for 2 television education channels in English and te reo Māori. These were on air 5 days a week and received 3.6 million views.

The Digital Public Services branch at the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) offered excellent support, in particular the Digital Inclusion Team. Their detailed work and research into some of the causes of digital exclusion allowed us to draw on their expertise and better respond to some of the challenges we had. Their input into developing the collateral we sent out to families and whānau is one example. We were already having the written material translated from English into te reo Māori, but we also needed it translated into a wider range of Pasifika languages.

Working with Māori, iwi and community intermediaries to gather information and establish trust

COVID-19 took us into an operational space that we aren’t normally involved in — we primarily work through schools and education institutions. We learned, and continue to learn, a lot from that process.

Schools did not always hold detailed information about students’ household connectivity, which presented a challenge.

Establishing trust was also of concern. For some families it was unusual to receive letters from the Ministry of Education on ministerial letterhead or unsolicited packages of technology directly to their household. The Ministry is part of the broader government, which doesn’t always have high levels of trust.

We learned that we are most effective when we partner with a community organisation or an iwi group to engage with households as the trusted face. For example, in our community connectivity pilots we saw a difference in community responses when we put wifi repeaters on streetlamps, instead of arranging fibre installation in a person’s house. We were able to have conversations with community organisations about the different pros and cons of these models.

Shifting towards leadership, guidance and support

The lack of connections and devices was a widespread issue throughout the education system. This created a desire for advice and strong leadership from the Ministry, causing a shift for the education sector.

To fulfil this advisory need, we partnered with Network for Learning, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) and Education NZ (our operational partners), to lead intensive engagement with peak bodies and other sector leaders.

This ensured that we had opportunities to hear and learn from all of those sectors what was causing them issues and challenges so that we could respond accordingly.

In the tertiary education sector, feedback from providers indicated that many students were struggling to access online learning. We wanted to ensure that students could access support for distance learning promptly once their needs were identified.

We put the temporary $20 million Technology Access Fund for Learners (TAFL) in place to support learners’ ability to access technology-enabled tertiary education and training. In this scheme, providers retain ownership of the devices that they purchase, and recover them from learners once they complete their study or training, redistributing them to other learners who need the devices.

The TAFL fund complemented other COVID-19 response measures to assist tertiary students. It included a temporary increase from $1,000 to $2,000 that could be borrowed for course-related costs. This assistance could be used to cover costs such as study materials, IT or connectivity needs, course equipment, or services to support student study like travel or childcare. Students could choose whether to draw down this extra support or not, and how much.

We also put in place the $20 million Hardship Fund for Learners, to provide temporary financial assistance to tertiary students facing hardship from the impacts of COVID-19. Students could access direct cash payments or resources purchased on their behalf through their provider. This fund recognised that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the financial needs of students and provides a safety net for those who didn’t benefit from the initial support package.

Developing digital policies and skills

Using digital devices to deliver teaching and learning at a distance is very different from face-to-face teaching in a classroom. We already had an Education System Digital Strategy, and a roadmap around digital infrastructure before COVID-19. But as a consequence of COVID-19, we will review our policy stance on device provision and support for teaching in an online context.

We had to consider data and device security, especially what types of information children could access on devices that were provided to them. We had a basic content filter installed to prevent students accessing inappropriate content on devices. The other concern was that devices might go missing, or be sold or stolen. We put an operating system on the devices that could lock them remotely, if that were to happen. We covered the insurance for schools so that they wouldn’t have costs for any lost or damaged devices.

Coordinating and accelerating action on digital inclusion

The Ministry of Education does not usually work in the connectivity space, but we needed to address the issue of digital exclusion. To do this, we dealt with approximately 50 different telcos across the country to identify unconnected homes, and then installed fibre and mobile connections to provide internet connections to these homes. As of November 2020 (the time of interview), we’re still connecting households to the internet.

We do not want to lead the digital inclusion work — our focus needs to be on supporting student learning, being able to assume that all households are connected. With this in mind, we are working on an all-of-government response with the Digital Inclusion Team in DIA’s Digital Public Services branch.

Note: The statistics mentioned in this interview come from surveys of Tertiary Education Institutions (TEIs), Transitional Industry Training Organisations (TITOs) and Private Training Establishments (PTEs) about learner connectivity conducted by TEC and NZQA represents initial results, as at 7 April 2020, as provided to the Minister of Education’s office by the Tertiary Education Commission and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

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