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Smart Thinker: Russell Burt, the educator tackling the digital divide

Smart Thinker: Russell Burt, the educator tackling the digital divide

The digital divide that exists between New Zealand schools has long been a concern for many. One man is on a mission to change things.

Smart Thinker: Russell Burt, the educator tackling the digital divide

The digital divide (i.e. the gap between students and schools having adequate access to computers or not) in Aotearoa’s education system was brought sharply to the community’s attention during the COVID-19 lockdown.

When schools across the country shut down and students began remote learning, large numbers of pupils experienced highly compromised learning due to a lack of technology and resources in their
home environment.

As educator Russell Burt explains, this is a problem that existed long before the pandemic. “COVID-19 highlighted inequity that has been present in our system for a long time,” he says.

“The education system needs to address and redress this. COVID-19 also demonstrated the need for ubiquitous (any time, any place, any pace) rewindable learning to be available in Aotearoa all the time.”

Burt, who describes himself as a “leading learner and education innovator”, is on a mission to solve the digital divide in New Zealand schools.

As principal of Pt England School, a decile one school (schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities) he sees this inequity first-hand.

In 2007, Burt co-founded Manaiakalani, an organisation that helps schools transition from ‘analog education’ to digital learning.

Since then, Burt has helped 100 schools and over 20,000 learners, many of them Māori and Pacific Island students, overcome this digital divide by providing each student their own digital device.

This year, he was recognised for his work in education and named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

The benefits of bridging the digital divide are plentiful, says Burt. “The hours, location and opportunity for learning can be extended, tauira [students] can have access to a wider range of learning opportunities and can have authentic global audiences for their creativity.”

This innovative approach has earned Manaiakalani national and international recognition.

“At present, we are able to help teachers and learners get twice the nationally expected progress in writing. Our goal is to get this to happen reliably in three core subjects (reading, writing and maths) simultaneously.”

There is an emphasis on aligning the education system with the working world and preparing students for life post school. As Burt says, “This is simply a matter of treating learners as we ourselves expect to be treated as adult workers.”

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