The way we live, learn and work is changing rapidly. We rely on connectivity and digital technology to interact, to acquire new skills, to innovate and thrive. New minister Clare Curran shares a few thoughts about how she sees her Ministerial roles in supporting the changing nature of education.
Our education system needs to prepare New Zealanders for a world we can’t yet imagine, and technology is an enabler – and potentially a challenger – of this aim. I want to help shape the environment that enables students by ensuring they all have access to tools and connectivity, whether at school or at home, and to support their learning. The digital future is not a flight of fancy.
Progressively, more schools are turning to digital technology to assist student learning. Participation and collaboration in the digital world are becoming the norm, with students, their peers and teachers using the web and technology to support a richer learning experience.
We’ve already come a long way in terms of improving connectivity for New Zealanders, and it’s getting better all the time. Our Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) network will reach seven in eight Kiwis by 2022.
Schools were prioritised as part of the UFB programme – all urban schools and almost all rural state and state-integrated schools are already connected to UFB, with only the 49 most remote schools instead able to access wireless connections providing broadband speeds of at least 10 Megabits per second (Mbps).
This means students and teachers can connect with a huge and constantly growing pool of educational tools and resources, collaborate with other students and teachers across the country and worldwide, and engage in self-directed learning.
Recent research by Motu – the first research that specifically explores the educational benefits of having access to UFB in New Zealand schools – found that it has a small, reliable positive effect on national pass rates in mathematics, and reading and writing, in New Zealand’s primary schools. And while school-based learning strives to level the ‘access and learning’ playing field, the case is not so in our homes; not all families can provide their children with access to the latest mobile device, nor afford the fastest broadband connection; and we know this is essential to support a child’s holistic learning.
The 2020 Trust estimates around 40,000 households with school age children do not have access to the internet. No student should be disadvantaged by their parent’s inability to pay, whether at school or at home.
It’s great to see initiatives such as Network for Learning (N4L), Computers in Homes and Spark Jump helping to address this and to equip kids for the digital world, but we must do more.
Nationally, productivity is static once you account for population growth. We also have a persistent divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ that we intend to address. Otago University’s social deprivation index has identified “lack of internet access at home” as the highest weighted factor affecting social deprivation for working-aged New Zealanders. If this isn’t a huge red flag, then I don’t know what is!
At this point though we need more research on the scale and impact of the digital divides on young people’s prospects.
The digital future is to us now, what access to earlier disruptive infrastructure was to previous generations. We have the opportunity to compete and connect globally because our physical distance has lessened with advancements in internet technologies. But we must also ensure planning and execution is purposeful.
The interface between school, tertiary education and the private sector needs to be developed, equipping the young people of today for the jobs of the future. This has become a matter of some urgency and we need to do better.
Learning should be relevant to the lives New Zealanders are living now, the technology they interact with, and the types of skills that will provide them with the opportunities to thrive in all aspects of their lives. It should also anticipate and embrace the future.
For example, emerging and disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) are currently seen as niche technologies but are likely to shift into the mainstream. In our education sector, they carry limitless possibilities for deployment, such as AI tutors and AR/VR learning experiences.
The digital curriculum needs to ensure there is a more systematic approach to teaching with, and the teaching of, digital technology. There is an urgent need to provide more professional development for existing teachers in how to do both – to teach with digital technology and to teach digital technology itself.
I will be working hard to ensure that our educational leaders have the tools and skills needed to respond to this change, and to empower them to drive innovation, experimentation and student success.
The Hon Clare Curran is Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, and Minister for Government Digital Services.