Chorus and Network for Learning are piloting projects to extend N4L’s managed internet service so that learning can continue beyond the school gate and after the bell. By Heather Wright

Talk to anyone involved in the Haeata Community Campus or Rātā Street school pilots providing free Wi-Fi access to the safe, filtered internet service they get at school and they’re all in agreement that today’s schooling isn’t what most of us will recall from our school days.

Digital and the need for digital literacy, dominates both school work and homework, with both frequently done online. Today’s schools have fleets of laptops, Chromebooks and tablets, with high speed internet connections allowing always-on access to educational programmes and reams of information for research.

But for an estimated 100,000 Kiwi students, internet access – and the learning that comes with it – ends when the school bell rings at 3pm.

That’s a big problem, according to Andy Kai Fong, principal at Christchurch’s Haeata Community Campus.

“I don’t think learning can happen without 24/7 access to the internet. So much of what we do either happens using it, on it or with it,” he says. “We know that home internet access allows and enthuses our students to continue their learning at home. We have examples of students who have continued their passions and projects from school and they can only do this with internet access at home.”

In September, pilots to provide connectivity for students without internet access at home kicked off at Haeata Community Campus and Lower Hutt’s Rātā Street School. The 2013 Census showed 40 percent of Aranui, where the trial is being held, didn’t have Wi-Fi at home. At Rātā Street School that figure increases to around 50 percent.

The pilots, which are both being led by local community trusts, are part of the government’s Equitable Digital Access for Students initiative.

While both schools are addressing the same problem, they’re using different technologies with Haeata extending its school Network for Learning (N4L) managed network using Wi-Fi, while Rātā Street’s pilot uses fibre to homes. Both tap into the Crown-owned N4L network, which provides safe, filtered web access for students.

Mike Lott, Chorus head of innovation, says the Haeata Community Campus solution is ‘a classic community Wi-Fi network’, with 66 wireless access points deployed on telephone poles across an area bordered by Anzac Drive and Wainoni, Breezes and Pages roads. The network, accessible only by students whose devices are registered on the Haeata Community Campus network, provides filtered web access to 360 students in 190 homes.

One of the challenges with Wi-Fi outdoors is powering the wireless access points. Chorus worked with Eaton, a power supply company, to develop a way of powering the radio transmitters using the copper network.

“We wanted to know if you could actually put effectively small cell sites on telephone poles, power them with the copper network and backhaul them using fibre,” says Lott. “The answer is yes, you can.”

The Haeata Community Campus Wi-Fi deployment is the first time copper has been used to power a Wi-Fi network in New Zealand. While that’s been a success, speeds for the trial have only been around 5-10Mbps.

“We have examples of students who have continued their passions and projects from school and they can only do this with access at home”

Andy Kai Fong, Principal at Christchurch's Haeata Community Campus

“You get brilliant coverage on the street, but not so much in the home because you’ve got walls and trees and so on in the way,” Lott says.

That prompted a new model for Naenae’s Rātā Street School, where Chorus has installed fibre to 125 homes of year five and six students, 70 of which previously didn’t have any internet access. The proprietary solution sees Ruckus Wi-Fi units connected to the optical network terminator providing wireless access to the school’s N4L network, without the need for a commercial broadband service.

“Over the next 10 years we will all be migrating to fibre, so putting in fibre now makes sense,” Lott says. “This is a technology trial to see if it works and then we can figure out if it’s a good idea commercially.”

Lott notes that not having internet access at home isn’t necessarily an infrastructure issue.

“Where we’re doing the trial in Christchurch there are three broadband networks – the Chorus fibre to the node network, the Enable fibre network and Vodafone’s HFC network, plus you’ve got three mobile operators,” Lott says.

“A lot of the time we’ve been focusing on how do you get the technology there, but it’s actually an issue of affordability – so it’s how do you articulate the problem and then make the business case to solve it.”

The Haeata Community Campus network was a team effort. Local MP Poto Williams and Haeata principal Andy Kai Fong celebrate the launch with representatives from Network for Learning, Chorus, Cyclone, Ministry of Education, Greater Christchurch Schools Network and Linc-Ed along with Haeata staff and students

More than a simple tech issue

But providing access is only one part of the issue, with a lack of devices being one of the key challenges.

While Rātā Street School is providing its year five and six students with Chromebooks, Haeata Community Campus has partnered with IT reseller Cyclone and Acer to provide a finance offering which allows families to purchase an Acer TravelMate Notebook, insurance and laptop bag for $5 a week over three years.

Arnika Macphail, programme manager for the Greater Christchurch Schools’ Network (GCSN), says the deal means students, and their families, get the benefit of a computer of their own. “It’s also having that ownership of something, which means we tend to look after it better,” she adds.

Both projects are being led by community trusts – in Haeata’s case, the GCSN, and in Rātā Street’s, the Taka Trust.

Matt Reid, chair of the Taka Trust, says three out of five kids who currently live in poverty are forecast to stay that way for life.

“We want to break that. We know the greatest difference we can make is by lifting these kids’ learning and engagement, ambition and dreams, and education is a key part of that. Through technology and modern learning in particular, we can make a massive difference to these kids’ lives, as is evidenced around the world.”

The community aspect, and having them drive the project, is critical, says Hamish Girvan, Chorus product development manager.

“The government or a school saying ‘here’s a free internet connection’ is not going to work. There can be trust issues about it all.”

Lott agrees. “It’s not something you just roll out in general and hope you get a result. You need lots of committed people who want to make a difference in how kids learn.”

Reid adds that that extends to the schools themselves, with school boards and principals needing to ‘totally buy-in to this way of modern learning’. He says it’s that leadership and culture that will be key in selecting additional schools for any expansion of the trial.

It’s no fluke that Haeata and Rātā Street were chosen as pilot schools; both were already embracing modern learning. Haeata, which opened in 2017 and was formed from the closure of four schools, offers individualised, self-selected studies, with students working mainly online.

Macphail says one major plus for the pilot is that it doesn’t require big changes for Haeata’s teachers. “They’ve got learning set up online for students, it’s just how they work when they’re at school, and it’s part of the school culture, so there’s no extra pressure for teachers,” she says.

Additional funding through the GCSN is being used to provide a facilitator to work with every teacher over the next six months to ensure support around digital fluency, but Macphail says “we are very confident that there is already great practice at Haeata.”

Macphail says as well as reinforcing students’ learning and enhancing their future career prospects, Haeata hopes its trial will open the doors for whānau to engage and support students in their learning. It also hopes people gain a better understanding of what the school is doing and the potential of the internet, while improving their own IT expertise.

“Haeata has a really great student management system called Linc Ed where all of a student’s learnings are documented. As they get older they can post in there themselves for them and their whānau and kaiako (teacher).

 

21st Century Learning

“We really want parents and whānau to engage in that space and see the successes their students are having at school. It’s about opening the doors to be able to see what 21st century learning looks like, because parents haven’t had that access and that experience themselves.”

It’s a view shared by Glenda Stewart, Rātā Street School deputy principal, who says the project will develop stronger learning partnerships with whānau.

“It will create opportunities for spontaneous learning in the home and it will be easier for students to share their learning with their family,” she says.

“It's about opening the doors to be able to see what 21st century learning looks like”

Arnika Macphail, Programme Manager for the Greater Christchurch Schools' Network (GCSN)

“We don’t know what the future holds for our students, but we do know that they will need to be digitally literate; they will need to be able to access information from a range of sources, think critically about it and communicate effectively. This project will help to develop all of those skills. It will begin to even the playing field with their peers in higher socio-economic areas.”

All involved are hoping that the pilots will be expanded.

Chorus is covering the costs of all Wi-Fi and fibre deployments for the pilots, but Lott is clear that he views them as a potential new line of business for Chorus.

“There might be as many as 100,000 kids around the country who don’t have access to broadband at home. We’re trying to work out whether we can create a more cost effective service that meets everyone’s needs."

And Lott doesn’t believe the benefits are only for high deprivation areas.

“It could work anywhere. We talk about low deciles, where we have been looking at, but equally, you’ll have high decile schools that have pockets of deprivation in them and it’s important to get these sorts of solutions to them so the kids there don’t feel excluded,” he says.

“New Zealand has such good infrastructure now with UFB, this could be done nationwide, providing all students with access to their school material in a safe and secure way, both at school and at home.”  

 

Deputy principal Glenda Stewart with students from Rata Street School