Coronavirus: On the wrong side of the digital divide

Written by: Dr Beng Huat See | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What does the research say about the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on potential gaps in learning – and about how schools can best support students and their families with remote education – especially those on the wrong side of the digital divide? Dr Beng Huat See considers the evidence

On March 23, the UK government announced a national lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. All normal daily activities disrupted, education of a whole generation of young people interrupted.

When schools closed and in-person instruction for most children ceased, schools turned to educational technology. Although the use of digital technology is an intrinsic part of teaching and learning, delivering online lessons to children remotely is not.

Teachers suddenly found themselves not only having to find the software or applications for online teaching, but also having to deal with new technology for delivering the lessons. Teachers also had to think about safe platforms to use for posting work, pictures, feedback and having conversations/messages with individuals or groups, with national resources becoming popular, such as the Department for Education-funded Oak National Academy website and a dedicated BBC Bitesize service.

This move towards technology exposed the stark digital divide that exists in this country. Many of the poorest children are likely to be the most severely affected. For example, Office for National Statistics survey data published in 2019 tells us that around 60,000 children aged 11 to 18 in the UK do not have internet connectivity in their home, and around 700,000 do not have a computer, laptop, tablet or iPad at home. These children have not been able to benefit from online lessons or resources.

Furthermore, in March, a Teacher Tapp survey reported that many teachers, especially those in deprived schools, were ill-prepared for distance teaching (Kirkham, 2020). Nearly half of teachers in the most deprived schools reported that they did not think they could broadcast a lesson. And only three per cent of teachers in the poorest schools hosted an online class, while only four per cent had audio/video calls with a student.

While 60 per cent of private schools already have an online platform in place, the figure was 23 per cent for the most deprived schools (Sutton Trust, 2020).

Children from working class families were also less likely to take part in online lessons – whether they be live or recorded.

Meanwhile, an evidence review from the Education Endowment Foundation sought to reassure teachers that it is the quality of teaching that counts rather than the need to actually live stream lessons (EEF, 2020a; Headteacher Update, 2020a).

The evidence review encourages us to focus on the elements of quality teaching rather than mode of delivery, for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback. It finds that there is “no clear difference” between teaching in real-time and alternatives such as providing pre-recorded video explanations.

However, whether streaming lessons or providing other online support, the digital divide still cuts off many of the poorest pupils in a severe way during lockdown.

Loss of learning

Because disadvantaged children are most likely not to have access to digital devices, there are concerns that their education may regress due to missed lessons or infrequent lessons.

However, a recent US study on summer learning loss – a concept based on the idea that children make less progress or regress during the holidays – analysed a nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (kindergarten class of 2010/11) and found little evidence of overall loss over the summers after grades K and 1 (Quinn et al, 2016).

Another study re-analysed two earlier data sets and new data from the Growth Research Database and found no evidence that learning gaps grew fastest over the summer (von Hippel & Hamrock, 2019). It suggests that the gaps in previous studies were largely the artefacts of measurement, e.g. children taking different tests and the age of the children when they took the two tests.

Either way, a typical response to the concerns about loss of learning during the long holidays is a summer school programme (in a way, online learning programmes put on by schools during the lockdown are similar to summer schools).

However, some studies have suggested that such programmes may even exacerbate the learning gap between students as middle class children are more likely to benefit from these programmes than poor children given the wide disparity in digital provision among wealthy and poor schools (Cooper et al, 2000).

Having said this, a recent meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies suggests that, in fact, children from low-income families are more likely to gain from summer school programmes than their more affluent peers because middle income families already have access to high-quality learning resources at home anyway (Kim & Quinn, 2014).

This means that the difference between having a summer intervention and no summer intervention may be smaller among high-income children than among low-income children.

Translating these findings to remote teaching during the lockdown, this means that the extra effort put in by teachers in deprived schools for their pupils are likely to reap bigger gains.

However, this is still based on the assumption that poorer children have access to continued learning, which brings us back again to the problems caused by the digital divide.

The evidence overall on online learning is still unclear. One recent study which compares virtual schools with brick-and-mortal schools using a matched comparison design showed that virtual schools had consistent and persistent negative impact on maths and English language (Fitzpatrick et al, 2020).

Technology is only as good as its use (OECD, 2020a). Some suggest that technology is not effective when used the core or comprehensive model of delivery but is moderately effective when used to supplement lessons (Cheung & Slavin, 2013).

Others suggest that it is how technology is used, rather than the use itself that determines whether the programme is impactful or not.

Evidence from robust studies (randomised control trials) suggests that it is the continued communication between schools and parents that is important.

Schools can keep parents informed of work to be completed or send ideas for activities that they can use for home learning via mobile apps or text messages (Miller et al, 2017; York & Loeb, 2014).

In one evaluation, text messages were sent throughout the school holidays. A report from the EEF (Miller et al, 2017) suggests that these messages must be personalised, linked to learning and positive. And communication should also be two-way allowing parents to be consulted.

Some further useful resources suggested by the EEF to support parents’ engagement with their children’s learning are available on its website. Suggestions for how schools can support parents and carers at home are also available (EEF, 2020b).

Some of the research even suggests that such simple text messages or phone reminders may benefit children with lower attainment more. So, even if the poor children do not have access to iPads or computers at home, as long as schools can keep in touch with parents and email work and exercises, learning can continue.

A recent survey of more than 3,000 teachers by Durham University during the period of school closure shows that the majority of teachers (89 per cent) spend up to five hours a week communicating with parents, most often by email. Some teachers also reported literally delivering school work to homes for their pupils.

These findings are good news for those who are concerned about summer loss and loss of learning during prolonged periods of school closure for disadvantaged children who have no access to iPads or tablets.

The real issue

In all this discussion about the academic attainment gaps, we must not forget that the real problem for many of the poor children is their mental health. Prolonged periods of isolation away from friends can have a negative impact on children’s psychological and physical health. I would argue that children in deprived communities are at particular risk – the lack of outdoor space means a lack of physical activity, more screen time and irregular sleep patterns. Many of these children are also living in households where parents’ jobs are uncertain and financial conditions are precarious.

Headteacher Update reported last month on research from Barnardo’s warning that children returning to school will be experiencing grief, anxiety about catching the virus, separation anxiety and other pressures. The charity has also revealed that its practitioners are already supporting many young people with mental health problems caused by Covid-19, including symptoms of anxiety, stress, sleep dysregulation, depression, reduced self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviours, paranoia and self-harm (Barnardo’s, 2020; Headteacher Update, 2020b).

On top of this, the remote learning situation has made it very difficult for normal safeguarding practice to take place, meaning many problems will have gone under the radar. There was been widespread debate about the expected spike in safeguarding disclosures for issues such as domestic violence and abuse when more pupils begin to return to schools.


Post-lockdown, the government should think about how teachers can be supported and better prepared. The director of OECD, using the Finnish and Estonian examples, said that “these systems succeeded in aligning resources with needs and reconciling equity with quality, an even more formidable challenge in this crisis, thus making the closest school always the best school” (OECD, 2020b).

In the longer term, we should think about the wellbeing and mental health of pupils and staff. The UN and national charities such as Barnardo’s are among those warning of a looming mental health crisis (Headteacher Update, 2020b). Many are urging governments to redress the historic underinvestment in psychological and support services.

Further information & references

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