Led by local nonprofit LIFE, a coalition of public and private entities has worked to close the ‘digital divide’ among Cayman Islands government school students. Education leaders have identified technology inequity as the main challenge to implementing virtual learning programmes.
Begun during the COVID-19 closure this spring, the ‘Education for Everyone’ initiative aims to help ensure that each student in Cayman Islands public schools has a laptop and internet access at home and in school.
“Never before have we witnessed educational disruption on such a scale,” said Anthony Cowell, LIFE Board Member and Partner at KPMG Cayman Islands. “At a time when the entire student population of our islands is affected by COVID-19, LIFE has launched a ‘call to action’ to bridge the digital divide and support schools in scaling up their distance learning practices.”
With 1,600 laptops secured and 1,250 more on the way, the initiative is providing enough computers for roughly 60% of the 4,600 students in government schools. Additionally, in July the government issued a request for proposal to procure 3,000 computers for students (including 120 tablets for Lighthouse School students).
The coalition includes LIFE (Literacy Is For Everyone), the Ministry of Education, the Department of Education Services, corporate sponsors and volunteers. The SALT Technology Group is providing services such as configuration, imaging and updating of all laptops, with additional training and IT support if necessary.
Founding sponsors include the Foster Group, KPMG, R3 Cayman Foundation, Cayman National Bank, PwC, Rotary Grand Cayman Sunrise and an anonymous donor, according to a press release from LIFE. Additional sponsors were Digicel, Cayman Airways, Logic and Flow.
The Ministry of Education will own the donated laptops, but schools will manage and retain the devices.
Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said, “This project underscores our shared commitment in the development of the children of this nation. The Ministry of Education welcomes continued partnerships as we work to educate our future leaders.”
LIFE Executive Director Juliet Austin said, “Education for Everyone is, without doubt, a game-changer and powerful testament to the ongoing commitment of the Cayman community to the education of our young people in this new digital age. We applaud all involved for answering the call to action so selflessly.”
‘Digital divide’, in Cayman and elsewhere
In interviews with the Current and in official reports, education leaders had consistently cited inequalities in access to computers at home, with reliable internet, as the biggest challenge in transitioning to virtual learning when schools were closed due to COVID concerns in mid-March.
During an interview in September, John Gray High School Principal Jon Clark said, “If I had one wish — and I did ask everybody I possibly could — the one wish that I need for the school is to have island-wide internet, free internet.”
During an interview in October, Prospect Primary School Principal Matthew Read said the technological disparities were evident at the classroom level; in some classes the vast majority of children had access to computers and internet at home, and in other classes many of the students may only have had access via a parent’s mobile phone.
In an email Friday, Read said, “I am really excited about the initiative and feel that it will be a real benefit to our students and shows real imagination and courage by the Ministry for Education and its partners.”
Across the Caribbean and internationally, COVID-related school closures put a spotlight on the ‘digital divide’ that prevented students without home computer and internet from accessing virtual learning programmes (that often were being thrown together on the fly).
“This week alone we have seen the number of COVID-19 case in Europe double to more than 200,000 cases a day. Countries are implementing phased close downs and some contemplating full lockdowns,” Read said.
“Schools all over the world are using remote teaching. While thanks to the CIG’s proactive stance we have remained safe, all of this could change overnight, and we need to be ready. March showed us the difficulty of running a school remotely when students do not have the equipment they need to access lessons. As we go forward remote education is likely to be with us for a long time.”
He added, “The Cayman Islands are on the edge of an IT revolution; in the future more and more jobs will involve being part of the digital economy and remote working. This scheme will help to prepare our students for this future and help keep the Cayman Islands competitive.”
Peter Carpenter, director of the Office of Education Standards, said ‘Education for Everyone’ “goes a long way towards addressing the recommendations” made by school inspectors in their June home learning review.
“In the government schools there now needs to be a clear strategy about how the equipment will be used and how families can be more actively involved in supporting the students’ learning at home, as well as at school,” Carpenter said in an email Friday.
“I don’t see any international jurisdiction which has undertaken a similar ‘nationwide’ initiative. Nevertheless, it is also the case that in most quality international schools, students do now already have access to a reliable wireless connection at home and at school,” Carpenter said.
“Also, in the secondary stages, in particular, most high-performing international schools require students to have daily access to a device which facilitates a combination of self-managed tasks and synchronous teaching and learning. Cayman schools, both government and private, still have some way to go to ensure the same level of dynamic and independent learning experiences for students,” he said.
Read said the increased access to technology gives schools the opportunity to reimagine teaching and learning: “Schools are a Victorian invention. Their very design is based on the growth of factories and manufacturing, they are in essence education factories. IT gives us a chance to revisit this model and to look at far more bespoke education pathways for individual students.”
Businessman Taylor Foster, who spearheaded the ‘Education For Everyone’ project for LIFE, said, “It is my hope that with the completion of this LIFE project, we will help the next generation of Cayman’s youth by giving them access to the tools that they need to succeed in these challenging and uncertain times.”