Bridging the Digital Education Divide: Creating Better Access to Devices in New Zealand’s Tertiary Sector

 |   Bob Glancy

Cyclone, HP, SIT

When the COVID-19 lockdown hit, thousands of New Zealanders urgently travelled across the country to be with their families, not knowing how long it would last. Among them were students from New Zealand’s tertiary institutions, many of them facing a switch to remote learning for the first time.

With physical campuses closing, education providers were challenged to expand their existing online course provision on an unprecedented scale or embrace entirely new models to maintain students’ access to education.

However, even with remote learning platforms available, some students had no access to computers off-campus, with the local library no longer an option either. The lockdown threatened to open up a digital divide between students with their own computers and those without – those who could continue their education and those who could not.

Students at our southernmost tertiary education provider, Southern Institute of Technology (SIT), were among those affected. Hailing from around New Zealand, some of them had no computer at all, while others would have to share with working parents or siblings, meaning their coursework would be interrupted for weeks or even months.

SIT was determined to ensure that all of its students had equal access to digital learning throughout lockdown and beyond, but the question was how.

As SIT Chief Information Officer Nick Elder explains: “We have a Modern Device Management solution for our staff equipment, but like most institutes we don’t typically provide devices to students. Meanwhile during lockdown, our helpdesk was inundated with urgent requests to help staff and students, and the last thing our team needed was to have a large procurement and deployment job as well. So we purchased the devices, with our technology solutions partner Cyclone procuring and managing student devices on our behalf.”

Having worked with SIT since 2010, Cyclone knew exactly how to help the team select the most appropriate laptops. It was able to get them set up with the right software and rolled out to the students who needed them, fast.

Says Cyclone’s Graham Prentice, General Manager, New Zealand Government Sector:

“SIT’s leaders were already having to manage so much change in an incredibly short amount of time. The polytechnic’s in-house IT team was busy enough managing all the extra work created by supporting staff suddenly working from home and students learning online without managing student devices and getting them to where they needed to go – so that’s where we came in.”

Having identified the students’ requirements, the logical choice was an HP Elite 850 – an enterprise level device with a fast processor.

“They needed a device with a dedicated graphics card to cope with the demands of multimedia courses, and the HP Elite 850 is one of the few that were capable of providing the performance SIT was looking for,” says Antony Watts, Commercial Channel Sales Manager at HP New Zealand.

The devices were also chosen with longevity in mind, so SIT will be able to reuse them for years to come and help support future students with digital access needs.

Partnering with HP, Cyclone procured HP Elite 850s for the affected students and had them shipped to its deployment partner, Ingram Micro. There, the latest Windows 10 Pro software was installed, with the Office 365 suite customised for a tertiary environment and enrolled into SIT’s Microsoft MDM solution Intune, enabling remote deployment and ongoing secure management of devices for students and SIT staff.

“Microsoft Intune is a secure Modern Device Management tool that enables institutes or specialists like Cyclone to manage devices remotely via the cloud, unlike the old on-premise models,” explains Sam McNeill, Senior Solution Specialist at Microsoft New Zealand. “Schools and tertiary institutions are really embracing this model because system updates to improve security or functionality can now happen from anywhere – you don’t need to bring devices back to the campus.”

The devices were then shipped straight to students. Says Elder: “It completely took the stress and effort out of the process for us. However, the best result is how it’s enabled our students to maintain their studies and engagement with the institute despite the disruption. For years we’ve prided ourselves on removing barriers to learning via our Zero Fees policy, and this is another way we can make it easier for students to study and get ahead with us.”

Having been struggling with a faulty laptop borrowed from a friend, West Auckland student Troy Sionetali was grateful to receive the device that enabled him to keep up his studies.

“It means a lot because I’ve never had an opportunity provided to me like this before. I’m studying to be a DJ, but for DJing you use a lot of special software and you need the right computer. Since SIT lent me the laptop it’s just made everything so much easier. I’m taking good care of it!” he says.

The devices will be returned to SIT when the students complete their programmes, and SIT is now investigating loaning devices via the campus libraries to address long-term access to devices. As the HP laptops are all enrolled in Intune as part of the Microsoft365 suite overseen by Cyclone, it will be easy for SIT to retrieve them once the loan term ends, reset as required and reissue them to students who require greater mobility, so they don’t have to travel to campus.

Meanwhile Cyclone is working to support more tertiary education providers to provide more mobile digital access to students, with software and device partners Microsoft and HP. Targeted funding is available from the Tertiary Education Commission.

Prentice says modern device management, with rapid rollout and access to a centralised management platform, could help provide tertiary education to traditionally underserved communities and broaden providers’ presence across the country.

“Mobile device management offers huge opportunities to bridge the digital divide across New Zealand’s tertiary sector, and best of all, it requires no additional investment in in-house expertise. We’re looking forward to supporting even more pathways to learning and achievement across New Zealand in the near future.”



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