The two sides of the digital divide

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Despite the pandemic having brought the stark realities of the digital divide to the nation’s attention, and the roll-out of free laptops, the problem persists and risks getting worse. Pete Henshaw reports

The government’s free laptop programme – launched at the height of the first lockdown as hundreds of thousands of students struggled to access remote learning – is approaching 1.7 million devices delivered.

However, new polling suggests that huge problems with the digital divide continue to blight the education of young people.
According to the research – which involved more than 5,000 teachers, including 3,400 secondary colleagues – only two per cent of teachers working in schools in the most disadvantaged areas say that all their students have adequate access to devices and internet at home.

This compares to six per cent of teachers in all schools and 10 per cent of teachers in the most affluent areas. Furthermore, two-thirds of headteachers told the research that they do not have enough funding to address the digital divide in their school communities.

The research

The research was carried out by Teacher Tapp and was commissioned by charity Teach First, which trains teachers to working in schools serving disadvantaged communities, and lays bare the on-going challenges of the digital divide in England.

The latest data from the DfE (2021) shows that 1,68 million devices (a laptop or a tablet) have been delivered to schools and colleges since the beginning of the free laptop programme as well as 101,000 routers which provide mobile internet access.

Figures from Ofcom published in 2020 told us that 1.78 million children did not have access to a laptop or computer at home (this is nine per cent of all households with children). This figure does not take into account those without sole access to a device. Furthermore, around 560,000 children had no internet access at all and 900,000 or so were only able to access the internet through a mobile network.

Teach First has delivered more than £1m worth of devices and dongles to schools serving disadvantaged communities during the pandemic, working with businesses and other partners to fund this programme.

However, the research makes clear that the digital divide goes beyond Covid-19 lockdowns and is now a major barrier to education. The survey found that as technology becomes increasingly essential to modern classrooms, 65 per cent of the teachers say they are using technology more than two years ago – a figure which increases to 73 per cent among the secondary school respondents.

Furthermore, 63 per cent said that better access to digital devices would help to close the attainment gap. Indeed, 28 per cent of the teachers felt that one of the attainment gaps to grow during Covid-19 is that between those pupils who had a digital device during throughout the pandemic compared with those who did not.

Not just devices

As the debate has raged over the digital divide in terms of access to devices and connectivity during the pandemic, experts have recently been anxious to emphasise the emergence of a new kind of digital divide.

Writing in Headteacher Update (2022), Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith, an associate lecturer at the Open University, said: “The digital divide is no longer just about access to devices and connectivity. As increasingly argued by many worldwide, the digital divide is increasingly about the choices made in the classroom. If these new forms of digital divide are left unaddressed, the gap between the under-connected and the hyper-digitalised will widen, aggravating existing inequalities.”

Dr Aubrey-Smith was drawing on research, including the Addressing the deepening digital divide report (OUP, 2021), which found the digital divide had two core elements: a lack of physical access to technology and a lack of digital skills in both learners and teachers.

The OUP report states: “Digital accessibility is often the most visible face of the digital divide. However, results from the survey, and from wider sources, suggest the problem is more akin to two ends of a broken bridge.

“Digital competency is the opposite end of the bridge: presenting an almost equal challenge and possibly one that is less visible on a day-to-day basis.”

Teachers in the Teach First/Teacher Tapp survey also highlighted that access is not the only issue to solve – upskilling pupils to use digital tools effectively is also vitally important. Only 36 per cent of the responding teachers said that their pupils have sufficient digital skills to use devices safely and effectively when learning from home.

As a result, Teach First is pushing the Department for Education to continue to invest in the provision of laptops, tablets and internet routers for pupils from poorer backgrounds but to pair this with accessible information and guidance so that parents and carers can support their children to engage with digital technology productively and safely. The charity also wants to see a significant funding boost to schools serving disadvantaged communities.

Commenting on the survey findings, Tony Costello, headteacher of Savio Salvesian College in Merseyside, said: “Like many schools, we’ve become a lot more reliant on digital learning since the school closures – especially for lessons, submitting homework and extra tuition.

“While things have significantly improved, there are still gaps we’re trying to fill. Any additional donations of digital devices and dongles would really help ensure that all our pupils have everything they need to progress in their learning.”

Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First, added: “The pandemic has drawn attention to a number of inequalities in our education system and it is clear that the digital divide is a serious issue. But it goes far beyond the current pandemic. Technology is playing an increasing role in pupils’ learning and is central to resilience in the face of potential disruption.

“If young people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have access to devices and the internet – as well as a good space to study – then the attainment gap will widen.

“Now we have to look at the long-term future of education – and that means prioritising investment towards schools serving disadvantaged communities, where the digital divide remains stark.”

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