Equitable Digital Access to the Internet for students from home

Access to the internet for students from their homes has been making the news recently.  On 15 September 2018, TV One News reported on a trial with 100 households in Naenae, Lower Hutt, being led by Te Awakairangi Access (TAKA) Trust.  Working with technology partners Chorus and N4L, the pilot uses a home fibre connection to provide a dedicated free connection to the N4L education network.  The objective is to provide seamless internet access for students using Chromebooks, whether they are at school or at home.  Chorus and N4L are supporting a similar trial at Haeata Community Campus (called ConnectED) for 190 homes, led by the Greater Christchurch Schools Network (GCSN).   This trial involves the use of Chorus’s existing copper network with pole mounted WiFi units in local neighbourhoods.

These are commendable efforts to address the estimated 30-40% of students in these communities without access to the internet in their homes.  Chorus, N4L, the Ministry of Education and the community groups and schools involved are to be congratulated for tackling this critical digital divide issue.

But it is disappointing that nearly 20 years have passed since the importance of home internet connectivity for students was first recognised by the 2020 Communications Trust when it launched the Computers in Homes programme in Cannons Creek, Porirua in the year 2000. Since then, Computers in Homes has connected around 50,000 students to the internet in their homes, as well as increased the digital literacy and confidence of their whanau.

It is also disappointing that the Naenae and Christchurch initiatives are effectively only technical trials where less than 500 students will benefit, when there are around 100,000 others in the same situation.    More recently the Spark Foundation launched its innovative Spark Jump service, targeting households with children up to the age of 18.  In just two years, this has already reached over 1500 homes.

The new trials will be limited to students as it is highly unlikely that the Ministry of Education will agree to fund internet traffic for all family members.  New research by Victoria University of Wellington for the Ministry of Education on Equitable Digital Access to the Internet Beyond School: A Literature Review concluded that the educational value of home internet access could not be separated from the context in which learning occurs.  The importance of home-school alignment and parental engagement in their children’s learning were highlighted.  Internet connections for students alone limit the opportunities for improving educational outcomes through whanau engagement.

So the challenges we are facing are not only to develop sustainable connectivity solutions that will reach all households with school-aged children, but also ones that can facilitate the engagement of other household members and whanau .  This will require government leadership (and funding) or as Spark Foundation has demonstrated with Jump, new commercially sustainable business models.