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Insight 01/05/2020

Bridging the digital divide: evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality

By Sarah Horrocks

School closures and remote learning are highlighting issues of digital inequality, both in the UK and globally. Schools have a critical role to play in supporting disadvantaged pupils and their families, and London CLC is using its expertise to provide them with timely advice to on how to tailor their support to bridge this digital divide and mitigate its impact on children’s learning.

In a time where the majority of children across the world are unable to physically attend school, education systems have switched to emergency remote learning. In many countries, this has led to a focus on online learning and, consequently, on significant issues with digital inequality. The UK government, for example, recently announced plans to tackle digital inequality in education during the Covid-19 crisis, by temporarily providing free laptops and 4G routers to some disadvantaged children. While this initiative is welcome, it also serves to highlight very real wider issues of digital exclusion which may impact children’s learning – especially in the current climate.

In the UK, an estimated one million children and their families still do not have adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. 11% of young people accessing the internet at home cannot do so with a computer on a broadband connection. A further 6% connect to the internet via dial-up modems – a technology which is now two decades old – and 12% of young people cannot use these devices at home at all. This causes challenges for completing schoolwork at the best of times, but such problems will only be exacerbated in the current climate, where remote schooling is widely necessary.

The issue is not merely one of a lack of suitable hardware, but also includes access to software, data (particularly if internet access is only available via a mobile phone), and support, as parents and carers may not have the knowledge or resources to support remote digital learning. (For more on digital skills and family learning, listen to the London CLC’s podcast on digital exclusion and entitlement, which explains how we helped over 1200 people to increase their knowledge and confidence of digital tools.)

The digital divide also remains stark in many other countries, and well-intentioned government drives towards high-tech remote learning solutions are likely to increase existing inequalities and education equity gaps. As Education Development Trust researchers noted in a recent report on best practice in remote pedagogy, such high-tech approaches will only be effective for teachers, students and families with adequate electricity, internet connectivity and devices, and are therefore unrealistic in many low-income contexts. Alternative approaches using older technologies, such as teaching via radio or television, or even no-tech approaches, such as printed resource distribution, are likely to be more viable ways of helping teachers to continue to provide lessons in the poorest countries.

Where online learning is pursued, evidence has shown that ensuring access to technology is especially important for disadvantaged students. Many reviews have identified a lack of technology as a barrier to successful remote learning – for example, according to a recent report from the Sutton Trust, 15% teachers in the most deprived schools reported that more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning from home.  Moreover, as an Education Endowment Fund report has recently argued, it is disadvantaged students who are most likely to face these barriers and to be disproportionately affected by school closures, it is these students who should be provided with additional support to ensure they can access and effectively use the resources they need.

It is therefore crucially important for schools to ensure that they remain connected to their pupils and their families through this time of social distancing and isolation, especially those families who have found engagement with school life to be more difficult. To help to address such issues, London CLC has created an Essential Guide to Remote Learning for schools. In this guide, schools are first encouraged to speak to parents to find out more about the availability of devices that a child will be able to use. Knowing whether or not the chid will have access to an internet-enabled device – whether this is a computer, tablet or phone, and whether it is available for only brief periods – gives schools a starting point to plan for how to reach each of their pupils. Some schools may be able to lend devices or dongles to pupils, but they may also provide printed packs of paper-based activities.

However, even where there is a limited amount of internet access, there are many possibilities for students’ remote learning. They may, for example, be able to contribute to blog posts on the school website, use tools such as Padlet, or access short educational YouTube videos. Of course, technical knowledge and support may still be limited, so London CLC has produced guides to safety and effectively using both Padlet and YouTube in remote learning.

Ultimately, schools will need to work out strategies to support families with different levels of digital access, capability and bandwidths – both in terms of how they communicate and in the learning activities they set. Good communication will be essential, whether through a school website, a messaging system (such as School Ping), phone calls, or even face-to-face contact with the most vulnerable children who are still attending school. It may also be helpful for digitally connected parents to communicate with and support others.

In terms of learning activities, teachers should carefully consider the potential of low-bandwidth, lower-immediacy alternatives to online video classes, such as file-sharing (for readings), email and discussion boards, which – used effectively – can create excellent learning experiences. These are well represented Daniel Stanford’s bandwidth immediacy matrix (see below).

He explains: “Seemingly small (and sometimes unconscious) choices about the technologies we use can have a big impact on how inclusive and effective our teaching is. The more we are aware of this, the more we can ensure we’re choosing the right tools for the right reasons.”

As this period of remote schooling continues, it remains vitally important that teachers and schools consider such strategies to mitigate the effects of the digital divide on their students’ learning. What is more, we can also apply these lessons when schools return, to help ensure improved educational equity in the future.

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