Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Schools cross the digital divide

Dux Onelei, 5, with a LeapPad, a digital learning tool that is being used at Colwill Primary in Massey to teach children to write. Photo / Greg Bowker
Dux Onelei, 5, with a LeapPad, a digital learning tool that is being used at Colwill Primary in Massey to teach children to write. Photo / Greg Bowker

Every New Zealand classroom will soon have access to digital devices - opening up huge learning opportunities, but also a risk of another "digital divide".

Government investment in ultrafast broadband and technology, combined with the falling prices of devices, has already transformed many classrooms.

But those involved in education warn a similar investment is needed to ensure such technology is used properly.

Professor Stuart McNaughton, of the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Auckland, said increased access was positive, but came with risks.

"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."

As each school forged ahead with differing approaches to technology in the classroom, the focus needed to remain on how the tools were used.

"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."

Professor McNaughton said that technology had increased the access to information and experiences, but teachers needed to help students contextualise and evaluate that information. "These new requirements for students will require, in turn, more developed expertise on the part of teachers."

The challenge to figure out what students need to thrive and cope is shared by researchers and the Ministry of Education. Professor McNaughton said initiatives such as the Manaiakalani Education Trust, which supports the work of schools in Pt England, Glen Innes, and Panmure to use digital learning, showed the possibilities, and were world-leading.

NZ Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said the challenge was how to teach a kind of "new literacy" to children.

"We have got to look beyond simple things that any kid could do at home without any support from an adult, and find ways to channel and challenge children's problem-solving, thinking skills."

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye has established a "21st century" learning reference group. She has asked the group to look at access to devices in schools, and a report is due back in the next few months.

An international One Laptop Per Child programme, based around a low-cost computer dubbed the "$100 laptop", is looking to expand in New Zealand.

A to Z easier to learn with digital tools

Dux Onelei used to trace the letters of the alphabet to try to hone his grasp of English after attending a Samoan-immersion preschool and speaking his mother tongue at home.

The 5-year-old's mother, Lucy Onelei, said progress was steady. But recently, after getting home from school, her son began drawing letters perfectly and without help or prompting.

Dux and his classmates at Colwill School in Massey, West Auckland, were part of a trial where they used LeapPad Ultra education tablets.

One activity saw the new entrants drawing different letters on a tablet's screen. If the outline is incorrect, they are prompted to try again.

"Every other day it will be two letters, three letters, and now he's really good with writing. His writing has improved tremendously," said Mrs Onelei of her son, who started at the decile-three school in July.

"I had no idea it was from the LeapPad. He'll draw a letter, but he'll draw it in such a way that I'd be like, oh, wow."

Dux's teacher, Liz Whitehouse, said students who used the technology over four weeks saw improvements in their literacy and numeracy, above classes who did not have the equipment.

- NZ Herald

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