The digital divide has long concerned educators in considering those students who have access to the internet and devices at home, plus support from parents in relation to device use, and those who do not. Covid-19 has had me thinking about this, what this now means for schools and students and how we might leap the divide which exists.
The digital divide as a concept seems quite simple and tangible; either they have access, or they don’t. This disguises the complexity of the issue and in my mind the existence of divides, plural, rather than a singular divide.
Firstly internet access; Some households will have super-fast broadband while others may have nothing whatsoever with a multitude of options in between. The issue being this isn’t necessarily an issue of parents choosing not to have access but could relate to the location of their home and the available options in relation to internet connectivity.
Devices; Some families may have a computer/tablet at home while others may not. Where a computer does exist, it may be a shared device or even a device used by parents to enable working from home. Where a shared device this represents a challenge for a child to gain access especially where other children or even adults need the device while a child is seeking to undertake time bounded work. This device also may or may not have some of the software used within school. It may not have an up to date operating system and may therefore represent a cyber risk to users using it.
Mobile Phones: I mention mobile phones separately to devices above given how common mobile phone ownership is among students these days but even this assumption hides a layer of complexity. Some students may not have phones, albeit a small number these days, however those that do have phones may have limited data packages meaning use for schoolwork could quickly become costly to families where Wi-Fi at home is not available. The size of screens may make phones less ideal for work set or, like devices, phones may not have the needed software. I note that many schools are deploying homework or school management apps currently and therefore I believe most schools are already taking a stance that parents will have a mobile phone; In the most cases this is true but I do wonder about what is in place for those where it isn’t true.
Support: In schools the availability of IT support is critical. If staff, as users, have difficulties, they may quickly disengage and re-engaging them with technology is often much more difficult once this has happened. In schools this is easy enough, although as I will explain later even this is an oversimplification, but at home this is dependent on parents. Parents need to support the specific usage of a tech tool as set by the teacher as well as providing the required technical support. Some parents are likely to be very tech savvy and quickly able and willing to support their children in engaging with technology and learning through digital tools. Equally though there will be many parents who themselves will feel out of their depth and unable to support their children in using what technology they have access to at home.
Schools: And even in our schools there are divides. There are divides in terms of the equipment available with schools, with some school issuing devices to all teaching staff whereas in others there is little available beyond a classroom computer fixed in each classroom. The available internet bandwidth may differ between schools as may the availability of IT support and training. Also, the overall school attitude to IT and to IT strategy may differ with some schools engaged in experimenting and innovating and other schools scared to explore, scared of risks around GDPR, etc, or where EdTech may even have been given only passing consideration.
The above divides can easily be seen as providing an impossible and wicked problem; How do we address all these different issues? In my view when presented with a problem like this our best option is to seek to make progress and avoid overthinking or spending too much time in planning. It is simply a case of act, review, adjust, act again, and a continuing process of iteration. But where to focus?
I would propose three key areas first:
Infrastructure: One of the biggest limiting factors continues to be access to fast reliable internet across the country. Here I am referring to the UK however this issue can be applied to any country. Generally, this is a governmental issue and needs addressing at a national level however it is one which schools can have some impact either through access to the schools infrastructure outside normal hours or possibly through mobile service provider solutions as two possible approaches.
Devices: Next is access to devices for students to use at home. How these devices are provided isn’t important, whether this be devices the students/parents own, or devices provided by schools or other organisations, the key thing is that students have access to a device. Ideally this should follow internet access however at a push it doesn’t have to; If students have devices they can at least use software locally installed, or free Wi-Fi hotspots should they not have access to reliable Wi-Fi at home. Yes, this will require funding and I am under no illusions as to the extent of funding required, however in the meantime we can at least attempt to achieve what is reasonably possible through partnerships between schools and also with charitable and commercial organisations.
Training: My next focus area is training for parents not in the technical issues of IT but in how they, as a parent, can support their child in using technology in their learning at home. I remember my old man helping me with Maths homework but at that time it was all pencil and paper, so he didn’t need anything more than a bit of maths knowledge and an interest in supporting me. Now we still require the above but in addition parents need a little IT know how to access online platforms and understand how information might be stored/organised and what might be expected of students using these platforms. Schools need to seek to support parents in this area. Now there already are lots of examples of this in resources being created in schools and shared online. Each school needs to consider what it offers and look to build on this.
Providing printed copies of worksheets to all because some may not have reliable Wi-if is no longer the answer. Sending worksheets to student via email or via an app may be progress, but is it enough and should we be doing more? We first must seek to find out what our students and their families have in terms of technology. Armed with this information we can then look to how schools can support students learning using technology at home. This will take some creativity to get correct and for some schools with limited resources I suspect this may still be printing out booklets, but for many there are at least steps which can be taken now or in the near future. The digital divide (or divides) is an impossible problem for which a solution may not exist but at least we can seek to continually improve and give students the best technology enabled learning experiences possible, preparing them for the technological world we now live in. And if you needed evidence of this technological world we need to prepare students for just take one look at the world today with the massive growth of work from home during this period of isolation and the use of video conferencing tools to stay in touch and even to socialise. I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg.