Bridging The Digital Divide
In Education

The closure of schools and colleges during the 2020 pandemic pushed both pupils and teachers into an unprecedented make-do educational environment; relying on technology and the creativity of educators to quickly establish a remote learning framework in which students could flourish. 

The lasting impact of those closures was seismic. Pupils’ learning hours were reduced significantly, within a narrowed curriculum, dependent entirely on access to devices and a stable internet connection at home.

Nationwide school closures were also able to highlight the discrepancy between pupils’ home-learning arrangements. It quickly became clear that students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds were likely to have less access to adequate devices and internet access and less likely to have the necessary home environment in which to continue their studies in the new-normal educational paradigm.  

In the aftermath of the pandemic, a study compiled by the Sutton Trust revealed that in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, 17% of teachers in the UK reported that 1 in 5 of their students had insufficient access to a device for remote studies.

The disparity was even more evident between the state and private sectors, with only 5% of teachers in state schools reporting that all their students had a device for remote learning, while 54% of teachers in private schools stated that they had a full quota of students with sufficient access to such devices.

children using a laptop at home

Action and response

While the Government did initially take some steps to address the digital divide during the pandemic, with the then Education Minister Nick Gibb announcing in June 2021 that 200,000 laptops would be distributed to underfunded schools across the UK, the scale of the impact on pupils made it clear that more entrenched challenges were in place. 

Indeed, a survey conducted in late 2021 by Stone Group, SecEd and Headteacher Update revealed that the digital divide remained ‘one of the biggest barriers to the effective use of technology in schools.’ 

Clearly, there is more work to be done.

What can schools do to
bridge the digital divide?

Digital literacy is a fundamental thread of modern society, with more than 80% of middle-skill jobs requiring some form of digital proficiency. Without basic computing skills, from word processing and spreadsheet knowledge to rudimentary accounting software, disadvantaged groups can find themselves with fewer economic opportunities.

Meanwhile, careers that require advanced digital skills, such as web developers or information security analysts, typically pay higher wages than those jobs that require only entry-level knowledge. If access to the internet or adequate devices continues to present challenges for marginalised groups, opportunities will become even more scarce.

students using a laptop in the classroom

Is the Bring Your Own Device
scheme a good idea?

In trying circumstances, one approach schools have taken in the face of digital inequity is the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scheme; a potential stop-gap method of freeing up school resources by limiting the percentage of students who rely on school-owned computers.

The idea being that school-owned devices could, in turn, be distributed to those most in need; those students who do not have sufficient access at home, or who might require specific software or applications—students with special education needs, to give one example. 

While this could be seen as an effective interim measure for some schools, it is by no means a fix-all solution.From a teaching perspective, a classroom that hosts a multitude of student devices, each with different operating systems and processing speeds, typically presents more challenges than it solves. In reality, as well as the impact on teaching time, as educators do their best to calibrate their lessons to accommodate the varying quality of devices, the scheme often only goes to further highlight the digital divide between students.

While it’s estimated that around 97% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have at least some access to a device with an internet connection at home, it would be difficult to assess what kind of device that might entail. How conducive would an internet-connected Xbox or a parent’s smartphone be for completing coursework or taking an online test? 

Targeted distribution of
school-owned devices

Another way in which schools can help bridge the digital divide is to create a strategy for targeted distribution of school-owned devices. By carefully monitoring device-to-student ratios, schools can decide how each device can best support specific learning activities within the curriculum. Distribution can be based on the individual needs of the student, ensuring that each device is allocated where it can have the most significant impact on learning.

A secondary school, for instance, might identify a group of underperforming maths students who lack sufficient access to internet-connected devices at home. Schools can allocate a set of school-owned laptops, loaded with specialised maths software and educational resources, allowing students to practise maths problems, access online tutorials, and receive instant feedback.

children using computers

Leasing technology

Meanwhile, schools that might be working under tight budget constraints, but still dedicated to improving student outcomes using ICT, can explore leasing options as a way to obtain new state-of-the-art technology at a reduced rate.  Along with the immediate benefits of the school gaining access to high-quality computer equipment, leasing offers much more flexibility and freedom within their budget than an outright purchase. Leasing can also provide financial scope to consider bulk buying equipment to make a direct saving.

Embrace pedagogically-led technology integration

In a broader sense, perhaps the most effective way schools can address the digital divide in education is to prioritise integrating technology in a way that enhances the learning experience as a whole. This challenge extends beyond simply providing devices and internet access; it involves identifying exactly how these vital tools are used to support a child’s educational growth—and, crucially, how educators are trained in technology as a means to achieve equitable learning outcomes.

A pedagogically-led approach to technology can ensure that every student benefits from the transformative potential of digital tools, particularly those facing socio-economic disadvantages. 

In education circles, ‘Pedtech’ always looks to use teaching and learning as the driving force of any technology integration strategy; rather than the technology dictating the education model. Inspiring both students and educators to embrace technology and recognise its universal benefits is always the first building block for creating a positive learning environment.

How can Computeam help?

The challenge of digital exclusion is not a new one. But, if the goal is to create a level playing field for students, then all education stakeholders must work collectively to develop strategies that best utilise technology to improve learning outcomes for all children. If you’d like to find out more about how your school can improve its technology offerings, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

girl using a laptop in the classroom

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Posted on September 6th 2023

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