Chromebooks, interactive whiteboards and blogs are now common classroom tools, opening up new worlds within which students can explore and learn.

But for some students, that portal is cut off when they go home at the end of the day.

Surveys conducted by the World Internet Project and InternetNZ have found that between 7 and 9 per cent of New Zealanders have no broadband access.

Teachers, whose classes and homework rely heavily on Chromebooks, say that students who can’t access the internet at home will inevitably fall behind their classmates.

Jon Rogers, deputy principal at Hornby High School, explains why.

“It’s very important for us here at school that all of our students have their own personal device and our device of choice is a Chromebook.

"Obviously it only works when there is a connection through to Google and Chrome, and we want the students to have that both at school and at home, otherwise they’re going to be disadvantaged in terms of what they can do.”

This disadvantage has been termed a ‘digital divide’, but while the Ministry of Education admits that a digital focus is an increasingly integral part of modern classrooms, a spokesperson says that doesn’t necessarily mean using internet-connected devices.

“The curriculum content does not require access to computers per se," Ellen MacGregor-Reid, deputy secretary, Early Learning and Student Achievement, says.

"A lot of the learning is focused on the thinking behind developing digital technologies and solutions to problems using that knowledge.” 

Nevertheless, she says digital technologies have grown to be an integral part of society.

“Our education system needs to prepare our children and young people for this fast-moving digital world.”

With the digital curriculum ramping up, general manager of the Spark Foundation, Lynne Le Gros, is part of a team at Spark, New Zealand’s biggest internet provider, which is working to remove barriers to internet access for students and their families across the country.

“The digital divide is a problem in New Zealand; there are around 40,000 families with school aged children that have no access to the internet. We wanted to help with that," Le Gros says.

“We saw the opportunity for Spark Jump because learning is not just something that happens at school, learning is something that children should be able to do outside school hours, doing their homework and also sharing with their family or whānau what they’ve learnt."

Spark Jump is an entry-level broadband connection designed for families with school-aged children who can’t afford a commercial connection.

The connection is prepaid, so families buy vouchers to top up their internet.

The price is low - $10 for 30 gigabytes of data – to make it as affordable as possible.

“We provide the modem free of charge," Le Gros explains.

"We work with local community partners to identify the right families, so we’re not choosing who is poor, but we’re working with local community groups who know who the right families are.”

She says there are some conditions on the product to ensure it goes to families that need it the most: the family needs to live in an area that has broadband coverage, they need to have children under the age of 18 who are attending or about to start school, and they need to have no current internet connection.

“The primary [reason] why we created Spark Jump was to help with education and learning.

“Much of learning and education is becoming [digital] ... teaching is not focused on looking at a whiteboard or a blackboard and paper books.

"The internet is the resource where lessons are kept, where students are storing their work, reviewing, doing their research, using tools to create, whether it’s tools to create movies or whether it’s maths apps,” Le Gros says.

“The delivery of the curriculum is only going to increasingly come that way.

"So if a child has a Chromebook at school...and then they come home and then can’t continue their learning or share their learning or do their homework because [of] the internet connection, then they’re going to fall behind.

“We hear stories [of children struggling to keep up] and the frustration of families in terms of knowing that they want to do the right thing for their kids...but when your budget is very very constrained, it just can’t do everything you’d want it to do.”

The program was launched in September 2016 and has so far connected about 600 families.

Some of these families are in Hornby High School’s community.

“We live in a community here in Hornby and Christchurch which probably has roughly, say, 90 per cent [broadband] coverage,” Rogers says,

“We’re really trying to target that other 10 per cent, who for a variety of reasons can’t or haven’t got their broadband connection.

“Back in the day when [Spark] were first trialling [the program], we identified probably about 20 families who didn’t have a broadband connection to their home.

“We do have to be sensitive.

"I suppose it’s a matter of us knowing our community and just putting it out there as an offer.

"That can be done in a perfectly positive manner, certainly the conversations I’ve had, people are just quietly grateful and think it’s great.

“It’s just a matter of knowing your people and being able to approach them respectfully,” he adds.

Rogers says Spark Jump has helped by removing the cost barriers to internet access for students’ families.

“It puts everything on an even keel.

"That’s a big outlay for families...but the beauty of having one-to-one devices and helping kids to get connected at home, it just reduces all those barriers between wealth and deprivation.

"That means that every kid has got an equal chance in our education system, and that’s something that we’re pretty passionate about here, that it doesn’t matter whether your family’s wealthy or you’ve got access to the best books ... when you’ve got a device that works at home and at school, you’re equal with all the other kids ... you’ve got more of a chance.”

Le Gros lists some of her favourite happy endings: the grandfather who called and begged for Spark Jump to be given to his daughter and granddaughters, and described it later as a “godsend”; the mum who told her how fantastic it was to see her little boy doing homework at home; the father who used to take his daughter to the library every night to use the free wi-fi, but who can now continue their learning at home out of the cold.

Then there are the students in the middle of their NCEA exams.

“[They are] feeling so much more confident because they [have] the internet at home, because when they didn’t, they felt embarrassed or maybe a bit ashamed, and they couldn’t keep up,” she says.

Rogers agrees, saying that the school has seen a difference in its students’ learning and engagement.

“I know for the families that we work with that it has made a big difference to them....for the majority of the families, it’s just wonderful for them.”

Le Gros says while it has been “awesome” to watch the development of Spark Jump, she knows the program may evolve in future in line with community needs.

“We’ve never said that we’re going to solve the whole problem [of the digital divide]...if it means that Spark Jump might evolve to something different or even cease to exist at some point because there’s something else that does the job better, then that’s fine by us.

"We’re more about helping solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, MacGregor-Reid says that the Ministry of Education is working on a number of strategies to assist students in becoming digital citizens.

“We are developing support and resources to help teachers implement the content into their local curriculum.

"The ‘Digital Equity for all Fund’ will be rolled out in 2018-2019 so that students have equitable access to digital technologies learning programme support.

“We are also introducing ‘Progress Outcomes’ to provide clear, accessible expectations for what students will learn in Digital Technologies,” she says.