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How do we narrow the digital divide highlighted by Covid?

January 16, 2022, 17:20 GMT+1
Read in about 8 minutes
  • Amber Birsen examines the lessons learned from the pandemic for the future
How do we narrow the digital divide highlighted by Covid?

The digital divide is nothing new; it wasn’t a side effect of the pandemic.

The pandemic just shed a harsh light on the reality that many people do not have equal opportunities because they do not have access to the internet or appropriate devices.

It is no secret that there is and has been for over a decade, a correlation between your income and access to the online world. The need for distance learning only widened the gap between children living in poverty and their peers. 

I am one of many teachers glad to be teaching face-to-face again now that schools have reopened. Many of us can agree that teaching is not the same as it was before. We are faced with new challenges, academically and behaviourally.

The mission now is to help pupils catch up with lost learning which has arisen due to the lockdown. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have more ground to make up as a result of the digital divide. For example, some of my pupils during lockdown were only able to access lessons on a smartphone, or had to share a device with multiple members of their household. 

Digital divide

In October this year, I contributed to Oxford University Press’ new report into the digital divide, which surveyed over 1,500 teachers globally to understand their experiences.

The results revealed that remote learning during lockdowns disproportionately affected the most disadvantaged: 70 per cent of teachers said the most disadvantaged students lost learning due to limited or no access to digital devices, and almost half felt their wellbeing had been particularly negatively affected.

Tallying with my own experiences, teachers in the survey said lack of access to digital devices was a problem, while over half said both they and their learners lacked the skills to make digital learning a success. 

The issue surrounding limited technological skills is important. It means that even those children and young people who have no issues accessing technology may still face challenges if they or their teachers are not confident in their digital capabilities.

In my own experience, I found that it is not just teachers and children with skills gaps: the lockdowns alerted us to the high number of adults without the technological skills to navigate the online world.

If a parent’s own confidence is low, this can affect their usage and in turn mean many children are not accessing the distance learning. It was interesting to see this reflected in the report, with other teachers noting that same issue: specifically, that it was more likely to be parents of disadvantaged children who lacked the digital skills needed to help their child engage with remote learning. 

Left behind

Clearly, we need to embrace digital education, particularly in light of its potential to help pupils catch up with lost learning.

The challenge is to address the digital divide to ensure no one is left behind. There are some immediate areas to address: social issues such as affordable access to the internet and devices need a government-level approach, but there are some actions schools can take to help close the divide too. 

The first of these actions is to address the skills problem. When the pandemic began, teachers were forced to adapt their teaching to an online format which for many was alien. We have all learnt an incredible amount about online teaching during the pandemic.

The skills we’ve gained will quickly go out-of-date if we don’t make the effort to keep them current. Technology is constantly evolving, and it would be a shame if teachers everywhere did not get the opportunity to retain and build upon their hard-earned digital skills.

Incorporating an element of online learning into the school day is one natural solution. 

Children and their parents can also be supported with more focus on digital skills resources. It can be easy to assume that the current generation are all ‘digital natives’, but using technology for entertainment is very different to using it for educational purposes.

Teachers need to approach the topic sensitively and should not make assumptions about digital capabilities of parents or other colleagues. 

Remote engagement

Independent learning via digital education is another option. As I’m sure many teachers found, it can be incredibly difficult to keep children engaged when teaching remotely.

The issue is that we are unable to recreate the classroom on a screen; the digital learning environment is devoid of the social, non-verbal cues that teachers use to address early signs of disengagement.

Face-to-face lessons are filled with small-steps, questions and regular assessment points which inform the teacher of the progress of the children. This is not always possible to replicate on an online platform. Misconceptions can easily arise and when these are not challenged the gap widens and misconceptions grows.

The solution OUP suggests in the report is to change the approach. Remote learning does not need to involve being glued to a screen: it can also be a conduit to help children develop their independent learning skills and foster a sense of agency over their own education. 

New skills and expertise

During lockdown, teachers adjusted to online education, and we’ve emerged from the process with a completely new set of skills and learnings. Why not keep that expertise alive by providing catch-up lessons online as a supplement to face-to-face lessons?

Instead of a longer school day, a hybrid face-to-face/online school day could assist children and young people to move beyond lockdown’s legacy.

Learners need as much face-to-face time as possible but when it’s not practical for pupils to be present in the classroom, digital platforms could become a standard resource, creating a new, hybrid model of teaching.

As we rethink how we engage with pupils and reposition what a day’s learning looks like in theory and in practice, it is essential that we are building different, practical foundations that can narrow the digital divide for even the most vulnerable children. 

Should we have longer days?

Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi recently suggested that the government may extend the school day to help with catch-up learning.

While this could have some benefits, there are also key challenges. Existing work and family commitments of parents and carers dictate how long the day can be extended and likewise, teachers may not be able to run after-school extra-curricular activities if the time is now devoted to academic teaching.

More importantly, the school day is already packed with catch-up provision for many children and there is a risk of their cognitive load being exhausted. Children need time to reflect on their learning and notice the links to prior knowledge. This would be impossible if we overloaded our children.

Amber Birsen, Subject Lead, St Michaels CE Primary School, Dorset