7 Equity issues
Inquiry into 21st century learning environments and digital literacy
This is the text of the report presented to the New Zealand Parliament in December 2012
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We heard that issues of equity of access to content and services are not confined to income circumstances. We heard that cost was a major issue for some schools and individuals. However, throughout our hearings, we heard examples of inequity between rural and urban communities, between and within schools, in access to devices, and inequity resulting from the digital literacy of individuals. We heard that both the home and school environment impact on students’ ability to be digitally literate.
We heard that public libraries have access to the Internet, but unrestricted access is not provided to users free of charge. We feel that the Government should consider greater public access to the Internet at public libraries, to allow students to continue with study and research after school has officially closed. We recognise that public libraries are funded by local government. Access to the Internet at libraries is also important for adults in the community who are seeking to improve their digital literacy. However, the cost of getting to the library, and time limits on use of the library computer (often only 15 minutes) means that some parents have little chance to improve their own digital literacy.
It is also important to improve adult digital literacy. We were told that the uptake of digital learning increases significantly when parents are involved. We heard from one submitter that they know of 33 early childhood education facilities that are helping children and their parents learn digital literacy skills. We understand that there are many differing views about the provision of digital literacy in early childhood centres. We recommend that the Government undertake research and consider policies in this area.
We also heard that there are benefits from allowing more parents to use the facilities of schools. We heard that schools that offer digital literacy courses on-campus have seen more parents engaging with school. There is anecdotal evidence that parents who complete digital literacy courses are also more likely to engage with the school through other courses.
The 2006 census found that 100,000 families with school-age children did not have computers in their homes. We accept that as a result of the 2013 census we will have more accurate data. We heard from one submitter that they believe a large number of students still do not have access to a computer after school hours. We have advice that while some students do not have access to a computer in their home, they may have access to online learning via another family member or mobile devices. We believe it is important when considering equity of access to online learning, that decisions be based on good data covering a range of indicators including access to computers in homes, access to the Internet, speed of Internet connection, and access to mobile devices among others. Not only may families be limited by lack of access to computers, but we heard an increasing percentage of low-income families no longer have a fixed landline, having switched to prepaid mobile phones to reduce costs. We heard that families that are struggling to pay for a fixed line will not be able to afford broadband access, which will further exacerbate the digital divide.
We heard that this lack of access to online learning could have a detrimental effect on such families’ educational opportunities. We heard that many children are involved with the digital up-skilling of their parents.
We heard that parental engagement is fundamentally important to educational outcomes, and that when parents engage with children and their digital devices at home, students are better able to continue their learning outside the classroom. For this purpose after-hours access to the Internet is important. We note that a few schools are seeking to provide free wi-fi within school clusters extending into the homes of local students. We heard that there is an opportunity to learn from these schools’ early innovations.
Throughout this inquiry, we sought to understand the extent of the digital divide, but found there was a lack of data or research on it in New Zealand. We also heard of a digital divide within schools, where teachers differ in their approach to the use of digital devices, or leaders embrace digital literacy inconsistently.
We heard of a situation whereby there were only 30 computers available to a class of 31 students, and the disabled student was not assigned one. We believe it is important to ensure that digital learning is inclusive and available to disabled students. We heard from the Human Rights Commission that when education software is being developed, a key point that should be considered is ensuring that people with disabilities can use the software. The commission suggested it is too late to adapt the software when it has reached the market, as students with disabilities will fall behind their classmates while the software gets updated to meet their needs. We were told that some governments have regulations that when technology is designed or procured, it must meet the needs of people with disabilities. We heard that in addition to appropriate software, high-quality broadband is also crucial, so that sign language communication will not be hampered. We also heard that online learning may provide huge opportunities to people who have been traditionally disadvantaged by lack of access to learning.
We heard about problems for students who wish to continue learning outside school because most schools use software which is licensed only for use on the school computers. This prevents students from using the software at home, unless they purchase their own copies. Those whose families cannot afford the licence fee go without. One suggestion from several submitters was to encourage schools to use open-source software. They submitted that this would allow students to use the software on the devices that they bring to school, and can also access the same software on their home computer. We heard from some submitters that there is ample open-source software available to meet all the needs of a student, and some schools already operate solely on open-source software. We recommend that the Government review licensing arrangements for software, in terms of access both in schools and in homes, including open-source software.
Some submitters criticised the prioritization of the current rollout of high-speed broadband, saying that they believe it is targeted at commercial and high-decile areas first. We received advice from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that there was a fair distribution between deciles in the phasing of the rollout, and that all schools will be connected by 2016.
24. We recommend that the Government consider introducing policies and initiatives to ensure that every child at school in New Zealand has access to digital learning at school.
25. We recommend that the Government undertake research and consider policies in relation to digital literacy in early childhood education.
26. We recommend that the Government undertake to consider how digital learning material used in New Zealand schools can be accessible by people with disabilities, including those who cannot see graphics, cannot hear audio, or cannot operate a mouse.
27. We recommend that the Government review licensing arrangements for software, so that students have equity of access in schools and in homes, including the use of open-source software.