Laptop loans help bridge the digital divide

Public schools around NSW are ensuring that every student has the tools and connections to learn from home.

31 March 2020

Kobey on his laptop

Image: Grafton High student Kobey working on the same online learning activities as classmates at home.

Grafton High School has bridged the digital divide among its student population by supplying more than 100 Chromebooks to students over the past week.

The school has also established a ‘help desk’ to work with parents and students to overcome internet connection issues.

It’s just one example of the many schools helping students deal with issues around internet connectivity and access to devices.

Grafton High principal Peter South said the school had run a bring-your-own-device policy for the past few years but only 70% of students owned a laptop.

“We had parents coming in over the past three days to pick up laptops, some of them brand new, on loan for their kids, and had the help desk here to set them all up with Google Classroom,” he said.

“In the junior school yesterday we had 300 students connected online doing their work all at the same time.”

Thousands of NSW students in need will be loaned digital devices so they can continue their studies at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NSW Department of Education is exploring a number of ways students can continue to access learning from home where they do not have a laptop, tablet, mobile device or internet connection.

Support for teachers and advice for parents and carers to keep students learning outside of the classroom is also available on the department’s Learning from home website.

The Minister for Education and Early Learning, Sarah Mitchell, said it was a priority to address the digital divide and loan devices and other technology to students.

“We’ve been surveying our school communities to find out where those gaps are, which students need access to those devices,” Ms Mitchell told ABC Radio.

At Warilla North Public School, principal Nicole Riley has used her RAM (Resource Allocation Model) equity funding to buy enough laptops to loan to any student who needed one.

Teachers, support and office staff at the Illawarra school had worked tirelessly in the past few weeks to ensure the “Warilla North Go Live” process had been as seamless as possible.

“In the future this puts Warilla North in good stead to be future-focused learners. This is our chance to get back in the game as such,” Ms Riley said.

“Every school at this time will be doing what they need to support their students. I have been privileged to work alongside so many principals who have gone above and beyond to ensure all students are able to continue learning.”

Grafton High principal Mr South said in recognition that some parents were working at home and siblings might be sharing devices the school had taken a “university model” for learning from home.

“We have been very clear around our expectations and have laid out the amount of work they have to do,” he said.

“Some students are logging in early, some are working 9-3 and others are engaging with the work at night. The content is there, we will measure participation by engagement with work.”

Mr South said poor or no internet connection was an issue for some students and staff.

“A lot of them live in areas that aren’t connected to the NBN,” he said. “Until recently I was in the same position and if my daughter was watching YouTube I couldn’t be online – you can only do one thing at a time.”

Education Minister Ms Mitchell said the department was in discussion with telecommunications companies to access modems and dongles for internet support.

Mr South said the school was ensuring all students received the support they required with School Learning Support Officers (SLSOs) recently trained in how to deliver remote support.

The school had a core staff to support around 14 students still attending school, with other staff, including office staff, working remotely.

With the student population including a number of children who were at risk, the school was ensuring strong wellbeing and welfare support also continued.

“On every learning page there is a button and if the student clicks on that it will send an email to the Head Teacher, Wellbeing,” Mr South said.

The head teacher would then triage the issue to the appropriate wellbeing support team.

To ensure students maintained a “sense of connection and belonging with the school”, year advisers were being asked to connect with their year groups via Google Classroom to showcase student work and issue merit awards.

Mr South said this was to ensure students stayed engaged with learning and “didn’t slip through the cracks”.