The digital divide: how distance learning highlights the disadvantages within education
While distance learning provides a wealth of opportunities for many to continue learning, there is no denying the disadvantages that come for students who don’t have access to suitable technology.
With schools in the UK, and many other countries worldwide, closed indefinitely due to the current climate, lessons have gone online so that students are able to keep up with their studies. This has provided an opportunity for many EdTech solutions to flourish. However, we cannot ignore the fact that distance learning also highlights the disadvantages of the many kids and homes that do not have access to a proper internet connection or the suitable technology to carry out studies.
As well as a lack of access to digital devices, there are some sobering numbers in the news around a lack of access to even a quiet place to study. The latest OECD round of the Programme for International Student Assessment from 2018 showed that 9% of 15-year-old students do not have a quiet place to study in their homes. In Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, this number is over 30%.
In addition to space where they can learn at home, many students globally do not have access to a computer or tablet that they can use for digital distance learning. While in some countries – Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Poland and Switzerland – over 95% of students have access to a computer to use for study, the number drops to 34% in Indonesia. The numbers in the United States are equally worrying. Those from socio-economically advantaged schools in the US have access to a computer, but only three out of four from disadvantaged schools have one.
The digital access fund
Both in the UK and globally, connectivity is a huge concern as those who are socio-economically disadvantaged may not have the internet bandwidth or be able to cover the cost needed to keep a device up and running for education purposes. In the UK, the government has worked with telecommunications companies to remove data allowance caps on broadband services, but this does not eliminate the challenge of many houses having an older or outdated device that is limited in its own speed and capabilities.
There are still many students in England who do not have a device suitable for online learning, particularly those who live in a mobile-only household. With this in mind, a digital access fund has been set up to help provide tablets and other devices to those who may be in need.
Another notable move is that of The Good Law Project who may challenge the UK government on the basis of the Education Act 1996, support by the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Good Law Project is making the case that every pupil has a right to internet connectivity at home in order to prevent them missing out on education during the lockdown period. The intention is to force the government to help councils to meet the cost of provision for all children.
The global push on education
In order to help support the learning and educators, the BBC are working to help deliver remote education to students in the UK as part of what is being called the “biggest push in education in its history”. From learning-related curriculum, to daily programs to help guide parents, to BBC Bitesize daily online lessons and content ranging from videos and quizzes to podcasts and articles, the BBC is helping to provide a newly expanded education offering.
We are seeing similar lower-tech options popping up globally to help supplement student learning, including the GES collaborating with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation to launch the Ghana Learning TV. It’s a 24-hour free-to-air channel for distance learning with courses in mathematics, English, social studies and science for Higher Learning students.
In New Zealand, the Ministry of Education is dispatching modems and devices to Kiwi families to support remote learning, and the country will also see two new educational TV channels take the air to assist teachers and students in English and Maori with programmes for the full age range from high school seniors down to preschool. Many schools have also lent out their computers to families during lockdown, while they also look to source more devices to provide to families.
Equally important during this uncertain time, is how well teachers are prepared to take on this new way of learning and teaching online. While online education does not always rely directly on schools, it is vital teachers are able to maintain their relationships with their students to help ensure their success. Left to their own devices, so to speak, and without the support and guidance of their teachers, would likely see students struggle to navigate the online learning space for a long period of time.
For those in socio-economically disadvantaged areas, coming from disadvantaged schools, distance learning is going to be an uphill battle to ensure students remain engaged and continue to receive a quality education. Despite this undeniable challenge, it is reassuring to see the progress being made by larger companies, and those on the ground, to help close the digital divide.
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