When New Zealand went into Covid-19 lockdown, teaching and learning had to move online.
At the Auckland University of Technology we knew this would be a huge barrier for a significant number of our students who relied on our campus facilities, as they didn’t have a suitable computer or internet connection at home or space in which to study.
Prior to the pandemic, we had already been thinking about digital equity, so when it hit, we moved quickly.
As soon as the lockdown was announced, we surveyed our students and estimated that about 6 per cent may not have access to the required hardware to study. They overwhelmingly came from lower socio-economic areas, and disproportionately from Māori and Pacific communities.
At the time, New Zealand’s hardware stock was diminishing rapidly, and we had to move swiftly to secure a supplier.
I wish to acknowledge the exceptional support and responsiveness of PB Technologies throughout this process.
We considered, and ultimately discarded, options such as Chromebooks before securing an arrangement to lease 1500 medium-specification, reconditioned laptops for a two-year period.
These laptops were dispatched by PB Technologies within days of receiving distribution lists, and with the advent of Alert Level 2, students could opt to pick up their device to avoid courier delays.
As our survey also showed that up to 17% of our students lacked internet access, we entered an agreement with Spark to loan them 4G cellular network modems, along with Skinny Jump data packages of up to 150 gigabytes a month, for 12 months.
The modems connect to the nearest cell phone tower and so only need electricity to run; no further wiring or broadband connection is required.
We have now delivered more than 815 laptops, and 756 data packages.
The initiative is ongoing, and the numbers continue to increase as we individually phone students who did not respond to our initial survey. We are also anticipating additional students being assisted in the second semester.
In total, we estimate it could cost up to $2.45 million. We embarked on the project before we knew whether there would be any Government funding, and we are appreciative that some of the cost may now be covered by the Tertiary Education Commission’s Technology Access Fund for Learners.
Once we moved to Level 3, we were able to ensure our students could book computers in our Tech Central computer labs on campus, albeit with strict physical distancing, bubble conditions, contact tracing and sanitisation.
I am enormously proud of what our staff have achieved for our students at what was an incredibly difficult time. An immense amount of effort was spent over those first weeks of lockdown to make this happen, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and urgency.
The effort though has been worth it. Before receiving help, one student told us: “I have just about finished two law assignments due next week, but just need to type them out unfortunately.
“If I can't get access to a laptop on time, I'll just downloaded Word to my iPad or something.”
The response of another relays his appreciation: “I was really impressed by AUT in regards to disseminating laptops for loan to students. I received my laptop in a short amount of time before online classes resumed. Thank you so much for the wonderful service, especially during this time. You guys ROCK!”
These digital inequities are a symptom of wider challenges faced by many of our students - issues such as poverty, food insecurity, overcrowding, and housing instability.
Although we are unable to mitigate all these issues, the university continues to marshal its expertise and resources to help our students.
Walter Fraser is AUT’s Assistant Vice-Chancellor in charge of its South Campus and Pacific Advancement.