The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the biggest disruption to education in generations.
At the peak of the virus, Unesco estimates that 90 per cent of the world's students were affected by school closures. Globally, users of Google Classroom tools doubled from 50 million to 100 million in March alone.
Here in New Zealand, where we've been working with educators on digital learning tools for almost two decades, the Covid-19 experience highlighted real issues in accessibility, reaffirming the existence of a digital divide.
But Covid-19 has also created an opportunity: the chance to reassess, and look at how we might use technology to make our education system more equitable, flexible and resilient — knowing that a reliance on digital learning is here to stay.
About 750,000 New Zealand students were studying remotely during the first lockdown.
Almost overnight, schools, teachers, parents and kids had to adjust to a way of learning — and a level of reliance on technology — that none of us had experienced before.
New Zealanders responded with typical unfussy determination. One family in New Zealand's Far North put a generator-powered farm trailer on a hillside so they could access satellite internet and create a distance learning classroom for their children.
Now, with kids in New Zealand back in class, it might be tempting to just hope things get back to normal (and stay there).
As a mum with children who have recently started school, I certainly have a new appreciation for how lucky they have been to be able to go to a physical classroom every day. Under level 3 lockdown in Auckland now, schools are closed.
We should use the chance to learn from our experience of the first lockdown and tackle the challenges we still face, even beyond the pandemic — in particular, the challenge of making sure more young New Zealanders have access to a world-class education.
This week Google held a global virtual event — "The Anywhere School" — where teachers, school leaders, education, departments, businesses and nonprofits discussed the role of technology in the future of education.
New Zealand can lead the way in this debate. We have a history of investing in education as a national priority, often trialling new approaches ahead of the rest of the world. To build on this — and help show the way for education in the post-Covid decade — we should focus on three critical priorities in our own education system.
Firstly, governments and technology companies should work together to get technology into the hands of more of the students that need it most.
With one-fifth of the New Zealand population unable to access the internet, about 140,000 school-aged students did not have access to the internet at the start of lockdown, while those that could often lacked the hardware and software to take advantage of it.
The pandemic has forced some breakthroughs. Of the Google Chromebooks that the Ministry of Education distributed during March and April, half went to students from
underprivileged backgrounds. But there's much more work to do.
Secondly, we should make technology and digital skills central to the way we support and train teachers.
New Zealand was working on this long before Covid-19, through programs like the Manaiakalani Education Trust's Digital Fluency Intensive, which helps teachers adapt digital technology in their classes. From here, we should use initiatives like the DFI as models to create similar digital training programs for teachers across the country.
Thirdly, all schools should have technology systems strong enough to adapt during crises like pandemics, but which can benefit teachers and students in a much broader way with the right training and guidance.
Again, the pandemic has led to fast change — more than 1000 schools are now using Google's free G Suite for Education tools, for example.
We may not see almost every New Zealand student studying at home again in the way that the first Covid-19 lockdown forced upon us. But we also now know that the flexibility of remote education works for a lot of families and students who haven't previously had the option, especially for those in rural areas or who don't always have reliable transport to school.
While it may be too early to say what the future of schooling looks like, it's clear that a deeper integration of technology and digital learning could help make education more accessible and equitable long beyond Covid-19. And what better place than New Zealand to explore what this could look like?
Achieving all this will take partnership. If there's one thing that Covid-19 lockdowns have shown, it's that the pressure of education can't fall on New Zealand's schools and teachers alone. The way we provide education deeply affects the way we live, work and raise our children, and all of us have a role in supporting our teachers.
No purpose could be more vital than ensuring the next generation get the best possible education. The challenge beyond the pandemic is to stay focused on closing the digital education divide, including, for example, by ensuring that remote learning tools work better for homes with intermittent connectivity.
Technology won't "solve" all the challenges our education system faces, but it can give teachers, students and parents the tools they need to thrive - and help shape the future of learning for the better. In the post-coronavirus world, New Zealand can and should be at the forefront of that change.
- Caro Rainsford, is the country director of Google New Zealand