Remote learning and the digital divide revisited in lockdown 3

A new year, a new lockdown and a return to remote learning. What’s changed in the last 10 months?

Expectations – up

For a start, there are now very defined expectations from the DfE about what schools should be providing, set out in the latest guidance (Jan 2021).  Schools must teach a planned and well-sequenced curriculum and select a digital platform for remote education provision that will be used “consistently across the school in order to allow interaction, assessment and feedback”. 

The guidance is explicit that the remote education provided by schools should be equivalent in length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school and will include both recorded or live direct teaching time. In summary: the amount of remote education provided should be, as a minimum: three hours a day for KS1, four hours a day for KS2 and five hours for KS3+4. Online video lessons, such as Oak National Academy lessons, may be used instead of school-produced content. 

Controversially, the DfE has also introduced the ‘threat’ of Ofsted, suggesting that parents who “feel their children’s school is not providing remote education of a suitable quantity and quality” should report the matter to Ofsted. 

Knowledge and skills – up

Compared to March last year with the scrabble to introduce platforms and tools and the incredible effort by teachers to develop their skills to use them, the difference in teachers’ digital skills and awareness is immense. Awareness and understanding of remote or blended learning and its particular demands and affordances has increased hugely. Much more is understood about the core principles that underpin good remote learning practice and there has been widespread sharing of some of the brilliant ways teachers have been supporting home learning. Just take a look at Lessons from a strange year: teachers’ blended learning finds and fails and Eight things school computing leaders learned during lockdown for a glimpse of the vast amount of experimentation and learning that has taken place during the most challenging time that schools and teachers will have ever faced.

Digital divide – awareness up; action, could do better

Once again in this new lockdown the digital divide is in focus but what, if anything, has changed since we last wrote about how digital exclusion was affecting children’s learning?

Ofcom estimates that up to 1.5 million children don’t have access to a device and 11% of the population don’t have internet access. Access to the internet by mobile phone – which 7% of households do – can be expensive and subject to data caps. Even though the problem has been highlighted for years and certainly since the beginning of the first lockdown 10 months ago, too little has been done to ensure that children in disadvantaged families have access to devices and data. 

Survey data from Teacher Tapp last month found that just 1% of primary state schools provide devices that their pupils can take home, compared to 38% of private primary schools, while at secondary level 7% of secondary state schools provide take home devices, while 20% of private secondary schools do so.

While the guidance suggests that children without the digital access they need for remote learning may be considered ‘vulnerable’ and so be eligible to attend school in person (raising fears that schools could be overwhelmed with laptopless pupils and reducing the effect of the shutdown), it also recommends distributing school-owned laptops. The prime minister told MPs this week that 560,000 devices had been given out to schools in 2020 and a further 50,000 so far this week. However, the scheme to supply schools with laptops has not gone smoothly, to put it mildly, beset with delays and inadequate allocations. The National Association of Head Teachers has reported that nearly half of the 2,000 head teachers they polled during an online meeting this week said that they had received fewer than 10% of the laptops they’d requested.

More than devices

A further change is that while at the beginning of the pandemic the focus was all about devices,  now concern has shifted to connectivity and data.  Even when students  have the kit and broadband, for many families supporting their children there are so many barriers in terms of the technical set up  and digital literacy aspects of online learning from home.

In the London borough where we are providing some support to families, on a recent check only 15% of the wifi devices sent through the government scheme had been turned on – revisiting this in a few days’ time may give a reality check on the sheer multiplicity of hurdles a family has to surmount, still, in this renewed period of remote education. As before, the DfE vision of continuous live teaching immediately disintegrates when a family of several children have to share one device (the hours mentioned above will just not stack up). A further complexity is that in the interests of security and safety (and accountability for how publicly funded equipment is being used in private homes) mobile device management systems which are managed centrally – normally an efficient and necessary tool – may mean that families are unable to install new software, updates or necessary plugins, meaning that children are unable to access the chosen tools they need for school. A welcome ray of light is the announcement by the BBC that from Monday children’s TV will be providing regular daily education content via CBBC, which will include BBC Live Lessons and BBC Bitesize Daily as well as Our School, Celebrity Supply Teacher, Horrible Histories and Operation Ouch.

Connectivity support is increasing. Ofcom has published a guide to what various providers are offering. The DfE is running a scheme to temporarily increase data allowances on mobile devices. Schools, trusts and local authorities need to request the support on a pupil’s behalf. Individual companies are also stepping up. For instance,  Vodafone provided 350,000 “free data” Sim cards to thousands of primary and secondary schools and colleges in November, 

O2 pledged in October to donate 10,000 devices and 12 months of free data to “vulnerable individuals”. And BT has already removed all caps on its home broadband plans to help ensure children can stay connected to their schools.

More than connectivity, too

But access is about more than connectivity. It also encompasses the digital skills of the adults working with the children, their confidence and headspace too. Our experience with family learning means that these are not new ideas to us, and most schools have been well aware of the complexities in their communities for some time. Really addressing the digital divide is not just about devices, and access is about more than connectivity.

While the digital divide persists, what can schools do to avoid excluding children from learning during this lockdown period?

Creative approaches to limited connectivity

Even when connectivity is limited there are approaches that teachers can take to planning and sharing that can also be helpful.

This is something that we at the CLC and Education Development Trust have been exploring through our recent work supporting UNICEF in creating a program of home learning activities for children in Jordan. Our support came in a number of different forms and it required us to compile a detailed collection of approaches and ideas from across the globe into the issues and practicalities around emergency education provision. We were asked to suggest a method for delivering lesson content to thousands of children across the country in a way that was clear, engaging and accessible across a range of devices and levels of internet access. 

The option we proposed, and which UNICEF ultimately used, was Padlet. If you’ve used Padlet before you’ll know it lets you create a kind of online notice board; posts are added to the page, sometimes just by the teacher or sometimes more collaboratively, and depending on the privacy settings everything gathered there can be accessed through a single link or QR code on virtually any internet enabled device. The posts can include a range of formats; text, video (including screen sharing), voice recording, PDFs, images and links. For the teachers in Jordan this means that visual and textual materials can be supplemented with voice recordings explaining them. Videos were also used but only sparingly, and they are always kept short and concise to minimise data usage.

For this particular project several boards are created by a central team each week, and they can be viewed but not edited by children across the country. However, we’ve also spoken to teachers who have used Padlet and where they’ve enabled pupils to post responses to prompt activities on their board, creating a space for some teacher-pupil dialogue or class discussion. Like the teachers, pupils can make their posts in one of a number of ways depending on their technical setup and how much time they have with the device, as well as their age and ability. It’s also possible for teachers to moderate responses to check they are appropriate and don’t raise any online safety concerns.

This is just one example of a tool that offers helpful versatility to support a range of user needs. There are many different approaches to this issue and we’ve seen a huge range of amazing, collaborative and creative responses from the teachers we work with – each of them working in their own unique setting with a unique community and a unique combination of factors to consider.

We’ll be sharing some of these inspirational approaches and examples in blog posts throughout this latest period of lockdown. 

Join us online at BettFest, 20-22 January for our talk on the digital divide and how to tackle it in which we explore this crucial topic in more depth. Here’s the full BettFest agenda.

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