While the rest of us anxiously await the implementation of the government’s fibre-optic broadband programme, a lucky Northland primary school has been reaping the benefits of UFB for over a year. Broadband solutions provider Orcon successfully connected the Whangarei school to UFB in a partnership with Orewa-based internet service provider Watchdog in November 2010, and it hasn’t looked back since.
We had the opportunity to speak with the school’s Principal, Leanne Otene, about the incredible possibilities fibre has introduced to the learning environment.
“As an ICT (information and communications technology) school, we know the value technology brings to learning. Our staff and students have been leading the way in terms of innovative learning through information and communication technologies since 2005 when we outfitted each classroom with IT tools to assist the teaching environment,” says Otene. “Now, we have a broadband connection to match.”
She explains that prior to receiving UFB, both staff and students were frustrated with the slow connection speeds, which often interrupted activities and stopped them from working as efficiently as they could. This is a hassle for any school, but for a school equipped with a full television station and a curriculum reliant on ICT technology of all kinds, it was especially frustrating. What’s the point of having all of that amazing equipment if you can’t use it properly?
Otene says Manaia View’s status as an ICT leading school is what made it a great candidate for the first UFB installation. However, being the first in line also meant there was no template to follow. “We were very concerned about how to move forward with this since, at the time, there was no benchmark, no set costs, etc.” says Otene. “People were speculating the cost could be up to five or six times more than regular broadband. We had no idea. I was definitely out of my depth,” she adds.
Otene explains that she and her team at Manaia View decided to form a buying group with four other schools in the Whangarei area creating a ‘network’ that allowed them to benefit from lower pricing.
“We worked together to determine what it was we expected from our service provider and what we were willing to pay,” she says, adding that many big players at the time were not even able to offer them a price. The school worked with legal advisors and a spokesperson to handle negotiations. Otene knew that her school had the unique advantage of being the first to receive UFB, which meant it would receive a great deal of publicity. In the end, the deal was settled with Orcon.
“Partnering with other schools in the area to form a cluster was incredibly beneficial – not just in terms of pricing but also support and advice – and we are now encouraging other schools around New Zealand to follow in our footsteps,” she says.
The other four schools in the buying group consist of Whangarei Intermediate, Blomfield Special School, Whangarei Primary and Morningside School, all of which were connected a few months after Manaia View, with all contracts again carried out by Orcon in partnership with Watchdog.
When asked about the benefits of UFB, Otene rattles off an impressive list. Not only were connectivity and speed massively enhanced, but the school was able to connect a great deal more devices. This made it much easier for students to use mobile devices as well as desktop devices and meant the school could take their ICT enhanced learning to the next level.
“Video work in our television studio used to be an overnight job, now it is instant,” Otene explains. She goes on to discuss how the school is now (easily) able to host video conferencing across classes and with its sister school in Japan. UFB has also made a huge difference in administrative tasks, especially around cloud storage.
In terms of the physical installation, contrary to what many people assume, Otene insists it was a breeze. “I think it took about a week at the most, and that was to set up an entire school. There were no interruptions to regular classes or activities. It was a very painless exercise,” she explains.
One concern many people have had is that by introducing UFB, and therefore further incorporating the internet and technology into school hours, students would abuse their privileges and use their devices to play games, chat or access inappropriate websites. Otene explains that there is no sense in worrying that this might happen, because the fact is that it will happen. “Of course some students will push their luck, that’s a given. It’s all about how you manage it. Every school will have the challenge of figuring out how UFB is going to work for them, and the key is to implement systems and procedures for bringing these devices into schools,” she says.
Otene believes that these devices along with the internet are necessary learning tools, but it is important to set clear boundaries and restrictions on how and when they should be used. “All parents and children are required to sign contracts regarding appropriate usage when they come into the school. There have been a couple of student s who have violated this contract and they have been reprimanded quite severely, so I think this puts anyone else off trying it!” she laughs.
The school also conducts regular history checks of all devices and downloads, with a master laptop in the library constantly monitoring activity. Teachers and staff have regular discussions around cyber safety and they work together to combat any new obstacles or problems as they arise.
“Technology moves so fast these days, but people are eager to keep up. It is becoming an integral part of our lives, whether we like it or not, so we might as well embrace it and the opportunities it brings,” says Otene. “Our goal here is to assist with improving student achievement, and this is one tool that can do that. I’m excited about it,” she adds.
And she should be! Once more schools are UFB-enabled, the learning and sharing possibilities will be endless. It will become possible for schools country- and even world-wide to share resources (including teachers) via video conference and file-sharing. This will be extremely beneficial for all schools, but especially for those that are less financially fortunate.
Now you may be thinking that this sounds like a great opportunity for schools, but will it really make a difference to regular home owners? The answer, insists Otene, is “absolutely.” She compares the switch to the upgrade from dial-up to broadband back in the day and says that now that she has experienced UFB she would never go back. “I would strongly encourage all New Zealanders to go ahead with the switch to UFB. I will definitely be asking to upgrade to UFB when it is deployed in my area, no question about it.”
When asked for her final thoughts on the rollout of UFB across New Zealand, Otene says something that every single one of us can relate to, “time is our most expensive commodity. Anything that can help us save time is going to be extremely valuable.”