Bridging the tech gap
Technology has a strong track record of empowering students and supporting teachers. But as tablets, online lessons, interactive tutorials and VR fuel some students’ success, those who lack access to technology can be left further and further behind. The gap between them is known as the digital divide -- and educators worry it's not getting any smaller.
How can we understand what the digital divide really is and how it affects learning? And most importantly, what can teachers, policymakers and parents do to close this gap and ensure that every child has an equal chance to succeed in a world increasingly reliant on digital tools?
What causes the digital divide?
At the most basic level, the digital divide boils down to two things: access to technology and the opportunity to use it.
Some students have the latest technology in easy reach: at home or in their backpacks. Others struggle to access basics like computers and printers, relying on borrowing devices or using publicly provided ones. For example, a student who has their own laptop may find online submission systems infinitely more convenient. But for students who need to travel to libraries or pay for computer use, a digital turn-in system can add logistical and financial stress. Additionally, hardware isn’t the only – or even primary – factor in the digital divide. In an online world, your productivity can be determined by your internet speed. Research has shown that faster internet speed is correlated with higher student test scores, and applications to a wider range of colleges. Unreliable or slow internet access can significantly impact a learner’s ability to engage with lessons and benefit from education.
In a self-perpetuating cycle, students who have access to tech and the internet often have better digital literacy skills, whereas those with less access may struggle to navigate the digital landscape effectively. This divide is showing clearly in classrooms -- in one survey, 57% of respondents stated that the digital divide was the biggest barrier to effectively using technology in schools.
Which students are most at risk?
The sudden shift to remote learning during the pandemic made the digital divide painfully clear. What also became apparent is that some students were significantly more at risk than others: low-income students, care-experienced students and students with disabilities have all been shown to be vulnerable to falling behind in digital education.
Students from low-income backgrounds may lack access to fundamental tools. With less reliable internet and limited access to devices, students struggle to engage in education and build their confidence. Older students who need to financially support themselves may have significantly less time to learn digital technologies and platforms. While their peers may have time to master tools and build their skills, they may be dedicating that same time to earning an income. The resulting disparity can result in lower academic achievement and less exposure to the vital digital skills that modern workplaces value.
Students who have experienced foster care, residential care, or other forms of care often face unique challenges related to the digital divide. If they lack a stable home environment, they may also have inconsistent access to technology or an environment where they can use it. Moreover, with many students' social interactions taking place online, they may miss out on building essential bonds with their peers, making it more difficult for them to succeed socially as well as academically.
For students with disabilities, the divide is even more profound. Research has shown that support from assistive technology has a significant positve impact on their learning, wellbeing and socialisation. But most do not have access to inclusive technology that makes a difference. On the contrary, students with disabilities face a steep uphill climb in education. Research from 2021 showed that individuals with sight and hearing impairments had the lowest levels of digital skills in the UK, and many classrooms struggle to implement the training or afford the technology these students need.
Bridging the digital divide
Technology is embedded in our daily lives; we work and socialise online as much as offline. As such, education needs to prepare students from all backgrounds for a digital future – avoiding technology is not an option. Educators, policymakers, parents, and students all have a role to play in closing the digital divide and equipping students for the future.
What would that look like in practice?
It starts with a high-level recognition of the need to support digital learning. During the pandemic, governments distributed devices and worked to include all learners; this essential work needs to continue and expand to address internet poverty and socioeconomic factors.
Schools can support students by integrating basic technology education into the curriculum, ensuring that all students have a solid foundation in using technology effectively. This can look like technology lending programs, open hours at IT labs, or additional support classes. In lessons, teachers should choose educational resources that are accessible to students of varying abilities and backgrounds. Open educational resources and free educational software can help bridge gaps in curricula.
Bridging the digital divide in education is both a moral imperative and a practical necessity in the digital age. The challenges are varied, but with the collective efforts of teachers, policymakers, parents, and students, we can work together to level the playing field. By ensuring that all students have access to technology and the skills to navigate the digital landscape, we empower them to succeed in the classroom and beyond, regardless of their background or circumstances.
At Bett, we hold peer-to-peer discussions about how to best use technology in the classroom and offer firsthand perspectives from students, educators and thought leaders on building inclusive classrooms. Learn more at uk.bettshow.com.