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(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reservedWe had this kid who was in Year 4 last year, and got really into Adobe Pho­toshop. He star­ted to do some quite inter­est­ing stuff, and his auntie said, ‘I can’t believe the dif­fer­ence in my boy. I now know what he’s going to be — he’s not going to be a paint­er like his cous­in. He’s going to be…’ and she lis­ted a whole lot of things. And she hadn’t thought about those things as pos­sib­il­it­ies before that.”

This is how Michele Whit­ing, the headteach­er of decile 1 Corinna School in Pori­rua East, describes the early effects of the digit­al learn­ing scheme that’s start­ing to trans­form the lives of the area’s stu­dents. At the core of the scheme is a Chrome­book — a simple, afford­able laptop — for every stu­dent, paid for by their par­ents in instal­ments over three years. But Whiting’s ambi­tions for the scheme go far bey­ond giv­ing kids a lump of sil­ic­on: she wants to change the whole way her stu­dents learn and her teach­ers teach.

Whiting’s inspir­a­tion is the much-touted Man­ai­akalani scheme that has oper­ated in a cluster of South Auckland’s poorest schools since 2012, and is cred­ited with lift­ing stu­dent achieve­ment sig­ni­fic­antly. In its first year with­in the pro­gramme, one school, Tamaki Col­lege, doubled its NCEA Level 2 res­ults for Māori and Pasi­fika stu­dents — put­ting it among the 60 fast­est-improv­ing schools in the country.

By giv­ing stu­dents a laptop, the Man­ai­akalani schools believe they can open up new worlds of learn­ing. Chil­dren become at home in a digit­al world, able to learn any­where, any­time and at any pace. Rather than just giv­ing their home­work to their teach­er, they can upload it to web­sites vis­ible to their whole com­munity, allow­ing an excep­tion­ally rich range of feed­back. Teach­ers respond to this new world of learn­ing by chan­ging how they teach, encour­aging col­lab­or­a­tion and giv­ing their stu­dents more con­trol over what they learn and when. And the Man­ai­akalani scheme places a huge emphas­is on work­ing with par­ents — many of whom have little exper­i­ence of digit­al tech­no­logy — so that the pro­gramme is increas­ing their skills and mak­ing them more con­fid­ent too.

It’s an ambi­tious scheme — but it has to be if low-decile schools are to bridge the digit­al divide and catch up to the offer­ings of decile 10 schools. Wellington’s Scots Col­lege, for instance, now requires every stu­dent in Years 6–13 to bring their own wi-fi-enabled device to school. It also intro­duces them to mod­ern robot­ics equip­ment and cod­ing clubs from an early age. “How empower­ing is it for young people to have access to this level of equip­ment, facil­it­ies and teach­ing?” Scots’ ICT dir­ect­or Cor­nel Fuhri asks rhet­or­ic­ally. “The sky is the lim­it for them.”

FishHead:  Corinna School Chromebooks Feature 27 March 2015. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.comThe word Man­ai­akalani means ‘the hook from heav­en’, ref­er­en­cing the fam­ous hook that Maui used to fish up the North Island. Porirua’s scheme, mod­elled closely on Man­ai­akalani, doesn’t yet have a snappy title, Whit­ing admits: “We have to find a name!” But it has equally broad ambi­tions. “It’s designed to improve achieve­ment, but also to improve fam­ily engage­ment with the learn­ing pro­cess… It is not just giv­ing the kids laptops. It is really try­ing to build a bridge between school and home around under­stand­ing what the demands of the cur­riculum are and the type of work that kids need to be doing.” Part of this is “a big cul­ture shift” for par­ents, many of whom may not have done well at school them­selves. It’s also about inspir­ing stu­dents to have “voice, agency and iden­tity,” Whit­ing says.

The idea star­ted when Whit­ing heard Pat Sned­den, the chair of the Man­ai­akalani pro­gramme, speak at a Pori­rua edu­ca­tion sum­mit in 2013. She got Sned­den to meet with her and oth­er headteach­ers in the area. He then intro­duced her to Ant­ony Roy­al, a mem­ber of Ngā Pū Waea, a work­ing group set up in 2011 to ensure that Māori interests are advanced in the roll-out of ultra-fast broad­band and the rur­al broad­band initiative.

Roy­al, who is also involved in an e‑schools ini­ti­at­ive in Otaki, says he took a group of stu­dents up to watch the Man­ai­akalani mod­el in action. “And there was some degree of, ‘Why’s Ant­ony drag­ging us all the way to Auck­land, just to see some com­puters in classrooms?’ But then they came back really excited.” By what? “By the poten­tial for great­er engage­ment… What they saw was con­fid­ent kids, being able to stand up in front of adults and artic­u­late and dis­cuss their learn­ing experiences.”

Soon after Whit­ing and Roy­al met, dis­cus­sions about copy­ing the Man­ai­akalani mod­el began in earn­est among the 12 schools — almost all of them decile 1 — that make up the Pori­rua East cluster; and it was at this point, Whit­ing says, that “every­body star­ted to get very nervous… There was an ‘Oh my good­ness, we aren’t ready’ feel­ing.” Some loc­als were, in fact, strongly opposed. Whit­ing rolls her eyes as she recalls one school board mem­ber say­ing to her: “We’ll teach them [the kids] to read and write before we give them the toys.” In the end, a small group of the keen­est schools pushed on with the plan. With­in six months, Roy­al had set up a trust to run the scheme. The Man­ai­akalani team helped out, send­ing an admin­is­trat­or down to advise on sys­tems design. “But actu­ally it [the sup­port] was very light,” Whit­ing says. “We had to do it, and do it the best way we could.”

Some mis­takes were made along the way, she admits. The first lot of Chrome­books were leased to three school classes that were “very keen” to get onto the new scheme. As a res­ult, Whit­ing says, “We allowed the Chrome­books to go home straight away, before really mak­ing sure the kids under­stood, and the par­ents under­stood, the respons­ib­il­ity to look after them. So we had a few broken screens in the first six weeks.”

That came with a cost, of course. The way the scheme works is that each Chrome­book is paid off at $4 a week over three years. That adds up to a bit over $600, cov­er­ing the cost of the laptop itself, a three-year insur­ance policy, a Google man­age­ment con­sole, and interest for the com­pany provid­ing the fin­ance. So fam­il­ies stump up for most of the costs them­selves. But the trust takes on the liab­il­ity for things going wrong, includ­ing dam­ages, war­ranty and insur­ance issues — and par­ents being unable to pay. For middle-class fam­il­ies, a couple of gold coins a week would be no big deal, but Pori­rua East has some of the country’s poorest house­holds, many of them reli­ant on bene­fits that pay, for instance, around $340 a week for an unem­ployed couple.

Even once accom­mod­a­tion sup­ple­ment and oth­er state sup­port is taken into account, some fam­il­ies have pre­cious little left over to spend on any­thing. So the fact that the trust takes on the cred­it risk is “a safety thing for par­ents,” Whit­ing says. The Man­ai­akalani scheme has a 20 per­cent non-pay­ment rate, and the Pori­rua team expect a sim­il­ar fig­ure, “though actu­ally it has been less than that for us [so far]”. Oth­er, more per­man­ent losses are also inev­it­able. “I know there are some where kids have gone [from the area] and taken the Chrome­books, and it’s good­bye for ever. So man­aging it is still a work in progress.”

The scheme rFishHead:  Corinna School Chromebooks Feature 27 March 2015. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.comeally got going at the start of last year, with four schools on board: Corinna, Natone Park, Pori­rua Col­lege and the loc­al kura kaupapa, Te Kura Māori o Pori­rua. Around 300 pupils in selec­ted age groups — Year 4 for Corinna, dif­fer­ent ages for the oth­ers — got their Chrome­books in early 2014. This year, a fur­ther three schools — Glen­view, Rus­sell and Wind­ley — have joined, with the rest of the cluster set to join when they are ready. Around 600 stu­dents have Chrome­books, rep­res­ent­ing half of Pori­rua East’s Year 4–9 stu­dents. “We’re hop­ing by the begin­ning of next year to have a com­mit­ment to roll-out [the scheme] to all stu­dents,” Whit­ing says.

Hap­pily for her and for the stu­dents, res­ults are already begin­ning to flow. “The kids start to see the pur­pose of the learn­ing, what they are work­ing on and what they need to do bet­ter. They are get­ting feed­back from their peers and from teach­ers. They are get­ting a much more intim­ate rela­tion­ship with that stuff.” In terms of the hard data, a couple of classes have made “sig­ni­fic­ant improve­ments” in writ­ing, espe­cially spelling, and one group of boys has seen big gains in read­ing, “because they were read­ing more non-fic­tion online, then find­ing books in the lib­rary that sup­por­ted that”. But, Whit­ing adds, “it’s also [about] the rela­tion­ship between teach­er and child. Just giv­ing them the Chrome­book doesn’t neces­sar­ily help. It’s how it is used by the teacher.”

That means teach­ers are hav­ing “to let go a little bit of the con­trol part of learn­ing. They have to allow the kids a lot more power around choos­ing what they are going to learn and what they do next.” To begin(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved with, Whit­ing says, teach­ers gave their stu­dents work that was just an online ver­sion of their tra­di­tion­al hand-outs. “Now, it is trans­form­a­tion­al.” Stu­dents’ work gets uploaded to shared cloud-based drives, so that they can com­ment and col­lab­or­ate on each other’s work. The work isn’t as vis­ible to the com­munity as it is in the Man­ai­akalani mod­el, how­ever. Whit­ing says they’re being “quite cau­tious” about
blog­ging, “the pur­pose around that and who it goes out to and why.”

Fund­ing the scheme is not straight­for­ward, either; although par­ents cov­er the cost of the Chrome­books, there are still all the oth­er costs of run­ning the scheme. The Man­ai­akalani trust has put in $10,000, and fund­ing from char­it­ies is pay­ing for an admin­is­trat­or and a whānau engage­ment work­er to help par­ents get up to speed with the tech­no­logy. For the schools involved, Whit­ing says, “It’s quite a scary time, really, because they [par­ents] are only pay­ing $4 a week, so the amount that comes in is fairly small.”

In the long term, Roy­al adds, fund­ing is “ulti­mately the respons­ib­il­ity of the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion, if they can get their heads around this… Until that hap­pens, we do have some fund­ing for a peri­od of time to work on this pro­ject. We need to spend some more time think­ing about how we make this more sus­tain­able.” One option, he says, is to build a com­mer­cial mod­el along­side the scheme to provide some income.

That oppor­tun­ity comes up when the team con­fronts one of its biggest chal­lenges: the fact that around one-third of house­holds in the area lack an Inter­net con­nec­tion. Roy­al says this “isn’t neces­sar­ily an afford­ab­il­ity issue. It’s a com­bin­a­tion of afford­ab­il­ity and pri­or­it­isa­tion, what you spend money on.” Part of the programme’s aim is to help par­ents see the value of hav­ing Inter­net access at home for their kids, and he thinks most fam­il­ies “will rise Inter­net con­nectiv­ity high­er up their pri­or­it­ies” once they under­stand what the scheme can deliver.

Non­ethe­less, Roy­al is worFishHead:  Corinna School Chromebooks Feature 27 March 2015. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.comking on plans to provide free wi-fi access for all the schools. It isn’t the best long-term solu­tion, giv­en the chal­lenges of man­aging a wi-fi net­work, and he would rather there was a mobile-based net­work for edu­ca­tion across the coun­try. “But, unfor­tu­nately, it [wi-fi] is the easy solu­tion.” A pre-exist­ing Com­puters in Homes scheme in Pori­rua has already provided some free wi-fi cov­er­age in the area, thanks to the efforts of former Aotea Col­lege headteach­er Tim Dav­ies-Col­ley. “What we have said to Tim is that when we put ours in,” Roy­al says, “we will provide him with a net­work across the same infra­struc­ture.” That means there could be a Com­puters in Homes net­work on the free wi-fi, along­side one for the schools that can be accessed only from the kids’ Chrome­books — and, poten­tially, a com­mer­cial, rev­en­ue-rais­ing network.

Roy­al admits it’s hard work get­ting the e‑schools scheme going. “Is this easy to do? No. If it was easy to do, every­body would be doing it.” But, he says, it opens up so many pos­sib­il­it­ies. “Some people per­ceive that being in Pori­rua East would be a dis­ad­vant­age. I would like in the future that people come here because they know [kids] are get­ting a good edu­ca­tion. And that busi­nesses will come here because they will find a pool of tal­ent here that has been untapped.”

Whit­ing, for her part, says the ini­ti­at­ive is hav­ing all sorts of pos­it­ive spin-offs, such as break­ing down bar­ri­ers between schools — “we’re tak­ing the fences away”. For the stu­dents, the scheme offers them “the oppor­tun­ity to actu­ally achieve skills they need to get through the qual­i­fic­a­tions”. And, ulti­mately, the chance to lift their sights high­er. “Sud­denly,” she says, “there is a whole new set of pos­sib­il­it­ies that they didn’t think about before.”

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