This election will decide our digital future

Since the election is less than two weeks away, let’s take a close look at the technology policies of our main political parties. I’ll cover digital technology in education and society in today’s column, and examine the implications for the economy next week.

The National Party has made digital technology in schools a big part of its election pitch.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye announced a new school curriculum at the end of June, and it has a heavy focus on technology. The draft curriculum will make digital technology a compulsory subject for years 1-10 in our schools, and comes with a $40 million investment package to help “upskill teachers to deliver the new curriculum.” It’s expected to be implemented in January 2018, in time for the new school year.

National has bandied around the term “computational thinking” to describe its objective. I’d argue it’s more important to teach our kids creative thinking, because we’ll have robots and AI to do the computational stuff. But overall, this is a worthy initiative.

The problem, say the opposition parties, is that there aren’t enough tech savvy teachers to go around. At a recent Digital Future Panel in Wellington, Labour’s ICT spokesperson, Clare Curran, expressed concern about “the narrowness in the curriculum changes” and the teacher shortage. She said there are around 4,000 teachers currently in New Zealand who can teach part of a digital curriculum, but it’s “nowhere near enough.”

Gareth Hughes, the Greens ICT representative, added that there are 62,000 kids throughout New Zealand who don’t have access to computers at home. So it’s not just technology in schools that must be addressed, he said.

Another recent policy announcement from National was the establishment of a digital internship and academy programme, which it hopes will give work opportunities in ICT similar to those provided by trades academies. National’s ICT spokesperson Brett Hudson pointed out that mentoring is needed to help steer kids into IT careers.

I like the sound of this. Learning a digital technology job is often very hands on. My own career in digital media was built on the learning-by-doing philosophy of the Web. I learned how to design and program websites in my early career, by clicking “view source” in a browser and then testing what worked for me. This approach led to many career opportunities.

Of course back then, I didn’t have anyone to mentor me about Internet technology – especially in little old New Zealand. The advantage of this era is that geeks of my generation are available to mentor youngsters. I’m a firm believer that you can learn more by watching an experienced digital professional, than by flipping through out-of-date academic textbooks.

A similar case could be made about looking and learning from those schools already doing great things with digital technology. The Manaiakalani Cluster is a group of mostly decile one schools in the Auckland suburbs of Glen Innes, Pt England and Panmure, which has made a deep commitment to digital learning. Each student is provided with a ChromeBook or iPad, and they have access to a variety of digital resources – such as Google Class OnAir for on-demand lessons.

There is also a wireless community mesh provided to homes in that region. So to Gareth Hughes’ point, the gift of digital technology isn’t restricted to school hours.

The Manaiakalani Cluster is an excellent initiative, but it’s driven by the generosity of an education trust and not the government. Clare Curran of Labour says the fact we haven’t been able to replicate the cluster’s programme around the country is a failure of government.

This leads to the question of digital equality, which is a cornerstone of Labour’s technology policy pitch. Curran said that Labour wants to target technology projects – in particular, ultra-fibre broadband – to maraes, state and community housing, and towns.

Digital equality is also being championed by the 20/20 Trust, another charitable trust doing sterling work. Its Manifesto for Digital Inclusion claims there are 120,000 children “in year four and above without access to the internet at home.” According to 20/20 Trust Chair, Laurence Millar, “few government-funded programmes specifically address New Zealand’s digital divide.”

Millar was at the Digital Future Panel, trying to get political parties to support the manifesto.

While Labour and the Greens said they will get behind digital inclusion, National’s Brett Hudson isn’t rushing to take action. He suggested his party is still looking for an “evidence-based understanding of exactly what will work.” Frankly, that’s a cop-out. All parties should be taking action now, to ensure digital technology is available to all New Zealanders.

This is particularly important given the continuing shift to online services and apps. The government recently announced that “80% of the transactions for the twenty most common public services” will be completed digitally by 2021. Some organisations, such as the IRD, are well on their way to achieving this.

Enabling online transactions for public services is a good initiative, but only if it’s accessible to everyone. Digital inclusion is a vital foundation for this and all other digital technology policies.

That’s why we can’t continue to rely on charitable trusts to implement our digital future. It’s time for the government to step up too.