Acronyms of opportunity

December 2013


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UFB, BYOD, N4L, SNUP – techy acronyms are littering the education world, but each brings exciting new elements of change and innovation to teaching and learning in New Zealand schools.

Orange road cones, men in high-vis jackets, holes in the ground, and giant reels of cable are a familiar sight around suburban New Zealand these days, and a good sign for schools; once the fibre is deployed, the fibre drop – the connection to the fibre running along the street – will be fully funded for state and state-integrated schools. Following fibre drop, schools just need a service connection and they’re away.

UFB and RBI The roll out of high speed internet to all schools, either by ultrafast broadband (UFB) or the rural broadband initiative (RBI), is well underway, but still a long way from completion. It is a five-year process, with all schools expected to have access by 2016. The five-year process involves multiple rounds of negotiations, which are overseen by the Ministry of Economic Development and Crown Fibre Holdings – not the Ministry of Education, as many mistakenly assume (although the Education Ministry is responsible for contacting each school once a provider has been selected and a timeframe confirmed for their connection).

For some, five years is a long time indeed. However, those schools connected to fibre already are delighted. Ultrafast broadband typically enhances performance of high bandwidth services such as streaming TV and allows schools more opportunity to collaborate through online learning communities.

Trevor Storr, director of e-learning at Waimate High School, says his school has only been connected for a few months, but they are already noticing the difference.

“We’ve already been able to use services that previously would not work on ADSL. New Zealand is a small country a long way from anywhere else. The economic arguments for the roll-out of UFB (access, equity, opportunity, and enterprise) also apply to education. Fast internet opens up literally a world of opportunity for teachers and students.” 

Similarly Brendon Henderson, principal of Tawa Intermediate, says that although it is early days, “it has definitely helped everyone’s ability to access online resources and learning opportunities.”

Dairy Flat School was one of the earlier schools to be connected up via the rural broadband initiative and principal Debbie Marshall says high speed internet has made a huge difference to staff and pupils.

“Students are able to access the internet simultaneously without it affecting speed. We are able to use teacher dashboard and collaborate on documents in the cloud. For us, it has been magic.”

SNUP Hand-in-hand with the connection to UFB is the SNUP, or the School Network Upgrade Project, which was launched in 2005 by the Ministry of Education. It is aimed at getting schools to get as much out of their UFB connection as possible. The SNUP subsidises and manages upgrades of schools’ internal cabling infrastructure and provides schools with high-quality data infrastructure allowing for future network expansion and for the use of ultrafast broadband in teaching and learning programmes.

An upgrade includes a complete and fully funded audit of a school’s existing network infrastructure and designs for upgrading to Ministry standards. The Ministry also subsidises a cat6 network cabling solution and switching. In terms of which schools are selected for the SNUP, preference is given to schools that are either already connected to fibre or about to receive a connection.

In April this year, 80 more schools were invited to upgrade their IT networks through SNUP, bringing the number of schools involved in the project to just over 1400 – more than half of all eligible state and state-integrated schools.

Troy Smith, head of ICT at Te Aroha College, believes the more prepared a school can be when the SNUP engineers arrive for a site audit, the better the school is likely to do out of the project. He says if funding is set aside, the opportunity exists for schools to undertake far more significant upgrades than what is offered under the SNUP guidelines.

In the earlier stages of the SNUP and UFB roll out, there were some concerns raised over exactly what schools should be doing with their enhanced internet capability and technology infrastructure.

“It’s not about technology for technology’s sake,” IT consultant John Holley told Computerworld.

“How does the money you’re going to spend on new infrastructure support and enhance teaching and learning? If you’re not going to get improvements in national standards or NCEA then why would you spend the money? That’s the Return On Investment question.”

Holley also points out the importance of professional development, of training staff so as to get the most out of new technologies.

However, if schools are still not quite sure what to do with their speedy internet yet, there appears to be plenty on the horizon to make good use of all the bandwidth.

N4L UFB and SNUP pave the way for N4L, the Network for Learning. The Ministry of Education is working with Crown-owned company The Network for Learning Limited to develop and operate a managed network for New Zealand schools. It will run over the best mix of ultrafast, rural, and remote broadband available to connect schools to secure, uncapped, reliable, and fast internet. Connection to the network is also fully funded and completely voluntary.

The first schools to climb on board the network this year will soon be followed by the others who have registered their interest so far.

N4L chief executive, John Hanna, says that a broad mix of schools will be connected this year to allow the company to build up a range of knowledge from different school environments before connecting more than 700 schools by the end of 2014. All schools will be able to connect to the managed network by the end of 2016 when they will have access to fibre and upgraded internal IT networks. Telecom has been selected as the network services provider tasked with helping N4L build the managed network.

N4L’s education sector lead, Caroline Stuart says the introduction of N4L couldn’t come at a better time for teachers, who are using digital technology more and more in the classroom.

Trevor Storr agrees. “As a teacher, I will be able to use tools that need high bandwidth such as Google hangouts to communicate with colleagues and share ideas. In general terms, the N4L will act as a great leveller of opportunity and access where physical location becomes less relevant.”

Storr says using applications such as Google apps for education and other online services allow teachers and students to access school work at home.

“We are also now able to begin exploring formal BYOD options as our connectivity will support a far greater number of devices.”

BYOD Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and 1:1 programmes are fast becoming ubiquitous in New Zealand schools.

The debate seems to have moved on from whether 1:1 device/student ratios are the way forward or not, to whether schools should dictate what device students used, or if students can choose their own device.

Obviously, there are merits to both. Some have questioned the difficulties of a classroom full of different types of iPads, netbooks, and Android tablets. Many feel uniformity is the best approach, allowing an even playing field for all students.

When introducing its 1:1 strategy, Queen Margaret College in Wellington decided on a uniform approach for students, selecting laptops on the basis of performance, price, weight, and battery life.

The ‘even playing field’ card is not to be underplayed – it is a strong argument for a standardised approach to student devices. Some schools have noted that the ‘tech envy’ – the sort that eventuates when one student has the latest iPad and another has a second-hand netbook – is something that can hinder a BYOD initiative that allows students the flexibility to bring whatever device they like.

However, some critics liken the request for students to bring the same device to asking students to bring the same pen or exercise book – an unnecessary demand when the infrastructure at most schools allow for any hardware.

Although schools may still store some resources on a local server, most are moving toward cloud-based learning. It appears to be a matter of when, not if, schools are making the move to Google Apps or Microsoft’s Office 365 for Education for providing email, calendars, and blogging capabilities for students. Learning management systems like Moodle are becoming increasingly prolific. E-portfolios are seen to pave the way for lifelong learning. To access these requires a device, any device, and the feeling among many schools is that as lots of students now have their own device anyway, why make them purchase another, likely inferior, device for the sake of standardisation?

Epsom Girls Grammar is an example of a school that invites students to bring their personal internet capable devices to school, regardless of whether they are a smart phone, an iPad, or a netbook. The school offers advice and a link to the Cyclone Online website for students to make the most suitable purchase to suit their needs.

Yet other schools, particularly those from low socio-economic communities, feel that asking families to provide their children with a device for school is placing undue pressure on them. A popular criticism of personal devices, and apps in general, is that they increase the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and some have expressed their fears that this would become evident in schools if some students were able to bring devices and some were not.

However, the famous Manaiakalani Programme provides an impressive example of a cluster of decile 1 Auckland schools that have not allowed socio-economic barriers to prevent each of its 1500 students from having their own device. The computers are gradually being paid off at around $15 per month. With the average income in Tamaki $19,000 per year, the most affordable repayment scheme was $3.50 a week for four years.

Challenges and opportunities

Of course, merely putting a digital device in the hands of every student will not ensure a more enhanced learning experience. University of Auckland’s Professor Stuart McNaughton recently voiced his concerns on the matter.

“The first type of digital divide is people who have laptops and people who don’t, or people who have broadband or don’t. A second digital divide is the netbooks; laptops are used differently in different schools and continue the disparities that we have. That is a risk,” he told the Herald.

“Just providing laptops or digital devices, in and of themselves, will not necessarily produce more effective learning. A laptop, a digital device, can be used like an abacus or a piece of paper – it’s just a tool. And if it’s not used in a way that capitalises on what it offers, then it’s sort of irrelevant, almost.”

The ugly side of BYOD, and indeed, prolific internet accessibility in general, is that it opens up more avenues to cyber-bullying. The new surrender and retain rules emerging from the Education Amendment Act may go some way to help curb such abuse of technology, as will the harsher penalties in place for cyber bullies.

Change will always bring with it a period of adjustment and there will undoubtedly be teething problems and unanticipated difficulties as schools adapt to this new era of ultrafast broadband, managed networks, and classrooms filled with students tapping away on their own digital devices.

It will, however, bring unexpected opportunities as well.

Of this, Trevor Storr is certain. “I’m certain that there are many yet-to-be-thought-of opportunities waiting to be discovered,” he says.

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