Bridging the digital divide: latest evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality in schools

The launch this week of the government’s ‘digital inequality’ aid for schools highlighted the issue of access to technology for remote learning. 

Gavin Williamson announced plans to tackle digital inequality in education during the COVID-19 crisis by providing free laptops to some children with a social worker, care leavers and disadvantaged year 10s, plus an offer of 4g routers to some families without broadband. 

According to the BBC, “there is no specified number of laptops available, or set budget, and it will be up to schools or local authorities to decide who needs help with access to a computer.” Schools will be required to submit business cases via a Department for Education online portal to obtain devices for individual eligible pupils. The laptops will have to be returned to the schools once they reopen.

It remains to be seen how extensive the scheme will be and how the logistics of getting equipment into schools and out to families will work in practice but at London CLC we recognise the very real issues that digital exclusion causes families and children when it comes to learning. 

The digital divide

An estimated one million children and young people and their families still don’t have adequate access to a device or connectivity at home (Nominet Trust Digital Access For All Feb 2019 report) – 11% of young people accessing the internet at home cannot do so with a computer on a broadband connection.  A further 6% connect to the internet via dial-up modems (a technology that is now two decades old) and 12% of young people cannot use these devices at home at all.

It causes challenges for completing school work at the best of times and the current – and necessary – moves towards more extensive remote learning will certainly exacerbate the problem. It is not simply a matter of some children having access to iPads or laptops and others not, it is also about access to software, data (particularly if internet access is via a mobile phone) and whether parents or carers have the knowledge to support remote digital learning (for more on digital skills and family learning, check out our podcast on digital exclusion and entitlement, which explores Lambeth’s three-year Digital Champions project and how we delivered 2000 sessions, reaching more than 1200 people and seeing significant increases in knowledge and confidence). 

The global picture

Digital inequality is an issue that’s being reassessed globally as schools across the world face extended closures. According to a report this week from Education Development Trust (EDT) on Best practice in pedagogy for remote teaching, advice has varied from place to place: 


“Some ministries of education have endorsed the role of online e-learning. In Egypt, for example, the government has contracted the education technology company Edmodo to provide a learning platform for all students and teachers in the country. Other governments have taken a different approach, emphasising older technologies such as teaching via radio or TV, rather than online learning.”

The report notes that some commentators have suggested that high-tech pedagogy is both unrealistic and likely to increase the educational equity gap, and points to the work of the UNESCO International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030, which has stated that e-learning solutions are likely to be divisive and ineffective:

“Technological solutions to ensure continuity of learning often exacerbate inequalities. Distance and e-learning are only effective for teachers, students and families with adequate electricity, internet connectivity, computers and tablets, and physical spaces to work. More traditional media-based learning, via print, television, phone and radio, often offers more viable ways of helping teachers to continue to provide lessons, especially in the poorest countries.”

An Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report, also published earlier this week, took a rapid evidence assessment approach to examining best evidence on supporting students to learn remotely. Its top two findings were that teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered and ensuring access to technology is key, particularly for disadvantaged pupils:

“Almost all remote learning uses digital technology, typically requiring access to both computers and the internet. Many reviews identify lack of technology as a barrier to successful remote instruction. It is important that support is provided to ensure that disadvantaged pupils – who are more likely to face these barriers – have access to technology. In addition to providing access to technology, ensuring that teachers and pupils are provided with support and guidance to use specific platforms is essential, particularly if new forms of technology are being implemented.”

Connecting with families

At London CLC we advocate a very nuanced approach and we’ve produced an Essential Guide to Remote Learning for schools, in which the first step for schools is to talk to parents and find out whether they have an internet-enabled device their child can use at all, if it’s only via a phone and if it’s only for brief periods or longer. That gives them a starting point to plan – whether that’s lending devices and dongles or printing packs of paper-based activities. Even a brief amount of internet access opens up a lot of possibilities, from activities and blog posts on the school website to tools such as Padlet and pointers to short educational YouTube videos. We’ve produced guides to using both Padlet and YouTube in safe and effective ways for remote learning for where families have adequate bandwidth (see the bandwidth matrix below).

Families may be social distancing and even self-isolating but we are all dependent on our communities and connections like never before. We urge schools to find every way possible to make staying connected to families their priority. It’s one of the key points pupil premium advisor Mark Rowland emphasises in his excellent blog post Distance learning through the lens of disadvantaged pupils. “More than ever,” he urges, “we need to work together and maintain strong relationships, especially with those families that have found engagement with school life more difficult.

Low bandwidth strategies

Then it becomes possible to work out strategies to support families with remote learning. Get communication channels going, which may be through the school website or a messaging system such as School Ping, or even through face-to-face contact with the most vulnerable children who are receiving some childcare in school. Then devise ways to put support in place, whether that’s through wifi dongle and laptop loans or encouraging digitally connected parents to support other parents.

Think about low bandwidth, lower immediacy alternatives to any activities that require high levels of technology and data, such as video. Daniel Stanford has created a ‘bandwidth immediacy matrix’ that is well worth a look.

Bandwidth immediacy matrix

The right tools for the right reasons

Reassuringly for teachers struggling to produce resources suitable for all circumstances, he emphasises the power of the low tech ‘underappreciated workhorses’ in the green quadrant:

“Online instructors have been using these three tools – file sharing (for readings and such), email and discussion boards – for decades. And while that might make them sound boring, you can create some fantastic instructional experiences with just these three tools.” 

As he rightly concludes, “seemingly small (and sometimes unconscious) choices about the technologies we use can have a big impact on how inclusive and effective our teaching is. The more aware we are of this, the more we can ensure we’re choosing the right tools for the right reasons.”

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