A Chromebook in every home promises a revolution in learning for kids, their parents and their teachers. Max Rashbrooke visits an exciting new scheme that’s bringing digital learning to Porirua’s schools and transforming opportunities for some of the region’s poorest students. Photography by Mark Tantrum.

Education: Porirua’s high-tech schools

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

FishHead: Corinna School Chromebooks Feature 27 March 2015. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.com

FishHead: Corinna School Chromebooks Feature 27 March 2015. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.com

FishHead: Corinna School Chromebooks Feature 27 March 2015. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.com

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

(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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