In low-income communities, many school children don’t have access to the internet at home, let alone the tech that would enable them to use it. An initiative by One NZ and Te Rourou One Aotearoa Foundation is helping to change that.
For most New Zealanders, having internet at home and a mobile connection on the go are considered a necessity for navigating the modern world. But Network4Learning’s Aka Kōrero / Touchpoint report in 2021 showed that “half of low-decile schools surveyed said the majority of their students had no device at home, while a quarter said more than half had no internet access”.
Māori and Pasifika people, and those with disabilities, are the most at risk of digital exclusion, and as a degree of digital savviness is required for everything from education, work and banking to interactions with government departments, that puts them at a real disadvantage.
Te Rourou, the philanthropic arm of One New Zealand, has an aspirational goal of halving the number of rangatahi experiencing disadvantage. It decided to focus on Invercargill as a test case, because data showed that rangatahi in the area are experiencing higher than average rates of exclusion and disadvantage. The Invercargill Initiative tests whether focusing support on a distinct geographic region and partnering with the community allows Te Rourou to work more effectively, developing a case study for fast-paced, sustainable and measurable change.
In an effort to support better outcomes for Invercargill rangatahi, digital equity programme Toitū te Toki is being piloted there as part of this initiative. The programme takes donated corporate laptops due for a refresh, refurbishes them and gets them into the hands of students who need them. This both ensures students have access to the right tech to support their education but also provides businesses a means for ensuring the longest most sustainable use of their devices once they are finished with them.
Sinead Kirwan, business lead for Te Rourou explains: “One difference with the foundation’s programme is that rather than donating the devices directly to schools, the devices are donated to the foundation and then loaned to the schools. We take on the cost and logistics of organising that. It takes away the worry for schools or whānau if a laptop is broken or lost.”
Craig Taylor, who took over as principal at Invercargill’s Aurora College in August last year when the pilot project was already running, says the scheme fits well with the school’s strategy of removing barriers to attendance. They provide free stationery, have a free healthy lunch scheme, there are no sports fees and, last year, around 250 students in years 11, 12 and 13 received their own refurbished laptop. The numbers are similar this year.
“All the students need to do is get here. For a lot of them, this place is the most consistent place in their life. They enjoy coming here and for us to provide them with opportunities to have a laptop and take it home and maybe show the family a thing or two, it’s got to be good.”
Taylor says the students have been extremely appreciative – one of the most common responses being “what do you mean we don’t have to pay for it?”
“They’re looking for the catch because things aren’t often given for free, but because they’re so appreciative they look after it and they cherish it. The feedback has been really positive.”
Kirwan says the idea was brought to them by Dane McIndoe, who heads up the Procurement Centre of Excellence at One NZ and knows from experience how access to technology can change lives.
McIndoe grew up in what he calls “a very average family”.
“We were okay, but we were never rich,” he says.
At the age of 18, he was working as a truck driver. His then-partner’s father decided to upgrade his computer and he asked McIndoe if he wanted his old one. He wouldn’t have been able to afford one at that time as they were “astronomically expensive”, so he said yes and taught himself how to use it.
“It unlocked a new part of my brain and I started thinking differently.”
A few years later he’d written a programme for a bank; in five years he was looking after technology at that bank; in 10 years he was an IT manager; and 25 years on, he now has a senior role at one of the largest telcos in the country.
“If I wasn’t given that computer, where would I be now?” he asks.
This trajectory meant he was always looking for “a way to directly affect somebody I didn’t know” and his job as a procurement professional eventually provided it. Looking at how many devices were in scope and how often they were refreshed from government alone, he realised there were around 80,000 devices (including laptops, desktops and monitors) being swapped out every year, and many of them were simply recycled.
“But they weren’t all defunct, and the government has a mandate to reduce the digital divide, so that got me thinking ‘what if we refurbished the ones that were still usable and gave that laptop to a student who needed it? What could they do with it?’”
Around the same time that McIndoe was exploring this idea, one of One New Zealand’s partners, Quadrent, which leases technology to businesses, was launching a new product called Greenlease, which sees them provide devices to their enterprise customers, replace them every three years, manage the e-waste or repurpose them for sale. One of its clients had several hundred laptops that were due for replacement and Quadrent was willing to donate them, helping get the pilot off the ground..
Taylor says the school already provides computers for use in class and offers access to design programmes on more powerful machines, but being able to take a laptop home is really important for students doing NCEA, which moved to online assessments at the end of last year.
“It ensures that they are comfortable using a computer. It’s not foreign to them, and it will remove some of the stress of that situation.”
Kirwan says the schools have been amazing throughout the process.
“It’s not without effort from them,” she says. “They’re not just receiving devices, they’re also contributing and we’ve learnt a lot from them. The students are also contributing through impact research being run by Toi Āria: Design for Good across the pilot to help us understand the impact of having access to devices for these students both good and bad. That helps us learn and build on the programme, improving it for future students.”
You could argue that the need for regular device upgrades even if those devices still work is a major cause of resource depletion and environmental degradation. But McIndoe says this is a way to harness the corporate upgrade culture and create a complete lifecycle scheme that actually works.
“As it’s built it’s morphed and become a larger piece and the next thing is how we can make it part of our business, so that when a customer signs up to [One NZ] or Quadrent, it’s automatic.”
Quadrent has now launched a plan called Greenlease Plus, where its clients can pay slightly more to ensure that 20% of their old laptop fleet will be refurbished and put into circulation at schools that sit low on the Equity Index, the upgraded version of the old decile system that launched in January. Quadrent’s Gary Nalder says its clients see it as a positive ESG initiative and they are able to reference it in their climate related disclosures, although he says there’s been more interest in the scheme due to its social impact than its environmental benefits.
And while the rangatahi love their new/old lappies, he believes employees are also more careful with their devices if they know they are going to someone else when they’re done with them.
Following the success of the pilot project, which is continuing at both schools this year, McIndoe is confident the model is scalable and a number of big customers have committed recently. The more customers that commit, the more laptops will go into the pool and the more schools the programme can be rolled out to.
Kirwan says it’s a great example of the power that businesses have beyond their everyday focus to make an impact by “lending and leveraging the resources they have to support better social and environmental outcomes”.
“All of the customers who choose to forgo some of the value of their laptop fleets to donate them are making sure those assets have a longer life and are supporting young people. It’s much more circular, and they’re also using them for local good, rather than sending them offshore to be sold on.”
So is it possible to get every student in the country from a low Equity Index school a laptop of their own? Based on One NZ’s current corporate customers and a whole-of-government device refresh where 20% of the laptops would be refurbished, McIndoe says it could be achieved in just three years.
He doesn’t think there is a skills shortage, as many in the tech sector keep saying. He believes there is just a lack of opportunity for certain groups. Give kids at the lower end of the privilege spectrum the right tools and they are likely to develop the kinds of skills employers need, he says, just as he did when he was given a computer.
“If I can help one child in New Zealand to have a similar story to me, that would be great. But with the number of laptops we are giving out, I suspect there will be a lot more.”