Although the 'digital divide' has been prominent throughout education systems all over the world, the coronavirus pandemic has really elevated the problem. Disadvantaged students have literally been left in the dark, with no way of logging on and although schools are slowly opening back up and gradually returning to ‘normal’, the digital divide is still ever present.
It’s not just concerns for education and loss of learning either – without the technology to do so, communication is almost near impossible for students to stay in touch with their peers or check in with teachers or faculty staff. Many disadvantaged students also live in areas that make it difficult to spend time outdoors, or find a safe space to get on with their studies.
The return to school after a long period of isolation may affect disadvantaged children further; their peers will have had regular communication with others, forming and developing relationships. This can lead to children feeling left out, or becoming isolated when they return to school. It’s not just a case of access to learning for all, but access to communication, to socialising to safeguarding. Blended learning will become the new normal – but not before the digital divide is addressed.
It’s not just access to equipment that’s the issue – many students don’t have regular access to the internet, which not only stops them from communicating effectively, but also limiting their ability to research topics, putting them at a further disadvantage to their peers, who can find new information at the click of a button. No longer are we just looking at the digital divide, but also digital poverty – students who belong to families that simply cannot afford laptops, smartphones, or even a monthly internet connection.
Robert Haldon, chair of the education select committee, has suggested that educational programmes could be broadcast for free on certain television channels. However, is it enough? – as digital poverty cannot be ignored. With many households with children of different ages, and even some without access to a television set, it wouldn’t be the most effective solution. In other countries, teaching via radio and TV has been embraced – but it seems to be a step backwards when other advanced technology is readily available.
We can’t be sure that there will be a second wave of the virus – but experts are leaning in the direction that it’s more likely than not. If this is the case, the digital divide will continue to widen and students could be further behind, socially and academically. And even without a second wave, remote learning will become mainstream, with the blended learning model being favoured. This means that students will be expected to have resources at home in order to continue their classroom learning.
Many schools are moving towards online systems to log student feedback, reports, and updates but without regular access to the internet or technology, parents find it difficult to stay in the loop and often miss out on important communication. Not only does this isolate the parents, but also limits their involvement with their child’s education and progress - more needs to be done to ensure that families can access their education and learning, with sacrificing other needs.
Technology is changing rapidly. Students who are unable to access to resources now will suffer greatly as teenagers and adults. Even basic computer literacy may be difficult to attain, unless students are provided with the necessary equipment and regular access to the internet, outside of the classroom.
In 2020, it’s almost impossible to function without the internet – or it makes life a lot more difficult to navigate through if you don’t have easy access. Think about the apps on your smartphone, the way restaurants have moved to contactless ordering, and that many stores have moved away from 'physical' money. These are just a few examples.
For university students, project submissions are now online, instead of a physical hand in; for parents of school children, they’re now more likely to be contacted via email, than through a letter in the post. For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, digital exclusion is a very real thing – and education systems around the world need to address at how they’re helping bridge the gap.
Technology is without a doubt, an essential part of school life now – from communication, to recording achievements, to submitting work for feedback, to researching and learning new things. This helps to streamline the process, for both educators and students – but it’s important that governments worldwide look at supporting all children to ensure that they can access their education, without falling behind as technology continues to advance.