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Making digital inclusion ‘go viral’

Principal Advisor, Productivity Commission
5 September 2019

Can you ‘infect’ someone with digital skills? It may sound like an odd question but let me explain…

The terms of reference for the Commission’s inquiry into Technological change and the future of work asks how we can address the digital divide in New Zealand. To help us answer this question, we need to understand how digital inclusion occurs. Does lowering the cost of digital access shift the threshold until all families are swept up in the digital world? Or does digital adoption spread through people who know about the technology sharing their experience and skills?  

As Judy explained in a previous post, the Productivity Commission recently hosted a workshop to learn more about the digital divide in education. The strong message we got from workshop participants was that digital inclusion is not just about affordable access to hardware, software and an internet connection, but also about families and whānau having the motivation, skills and the trust for their young people to meaningfully use the internet for learning.

But in this post, I want to focus on two other aspects that are very important, and that could be overlooked when thinking about digital inclusion – the context of the education system, and professional development for teachers.

First, the context of the education system. New Zealand has a very devolved education system.1 In that sense, schools are a lot like firms – they each make their own decisions about when and how to adopt new technology (including new models of teaching and learning relating to digital literacy).

This is the context into which the Ministry of Education’s initiative to provide ‘Equitable Digital Access for Students’ (EDA4S) aims to bring home internet connections to the 100 000 school students currently without access. But in what form would a national roll-out make sense in a highly devolved system? At our recent workshop on the digital divide we heard, including from the EDA4S team, that solutions will need to be bespoke and tailored to community settings.

Second, the role of teachers. Digital skills need to be integrated well into each teacher’s own professional practice and that requires good Professional Learning and Development. We can’t expect teachers to instantly understand the latest tech (and keep up to date with changing tech) without good training.2

That got me thinking about two models of technology diffusion which I introduced in my last post:

The probit model explains that a technology will be adopted by way of a constantly shifting threshold – as the technology gets cheaper and better over time, it eventually sweeps over the entire distribution of potential adopters.

In contrast, the epidemic model focuses on information – once people try out a new tech, they share their knowledge with others, so that the technology spreads like a disease, ‘infecting’ new users.

Therefore, while the roll-out of access assumes a probit model (by making it cheaper for people to connect), perhaps the epidemic model is a better explanation of the diffusion (or lack thereof) of digital skills and literacy in education. This is because without the motivation and confidence that comes when schools and their school communities encounter others who have used the technology – and without developing the skills in our teachers – true digital inclusion won’t happen.

At the workshop we heard stories of new laptops gathering dust on school shelves because of a lack of motivation, skills and confidence in some schools. We need to think more critically about how technology diffusion occurs to make sure we target digital inclusion activities and resources well, in order to ensure full and genuine digital inclusion.

Notes

1. The devolved school model was a core part of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms of the late 1980s (noting also that Tomorrow’s Schools is currently under review as part of the national Education Conversation). Tomorrow’s Schools gives schools a lot of autonomy, including decisions about how they implement things like the new digital curriculum (to be adopted by all schools and kura by 2020).

2. A recent study by the Education Review Office found that professional development for teachers in the new digital curriculum has suffered delays, with only 7% of surveyed schools considering they have sufficient knowledge and skills to start implementation. The Ministry of Education is however confident that things have improved since that survey and that all schools will be ready to start teaching the new digital curriculum in January 2020.

Original artwork: Jack MacCormick

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