The digital divide affects teachers as well as their pupils

4 May 2020, 14:56

As schools settle into more sustained use of online learning tools, attention needs to be paid to teachers’ development and resource needs as well as their students’, writes Patrick Roach

It now seems like a lifetime ago that the majority of children and young people’s learning took place at school. The speed and scale of the Coronavirus crisis meant that virtually overnight living rooms, kitchens, sheds and bedrooms have been repurposed as places of both learning and teaching.

For the majority of schools this has meant a sudden and abrupt shift to delivering the majority of learning online. For some schools this will have been easier than others.

Digital literacy has become the new currency in our altered world. For those schools and teachers who were already enthusiastically utilising online tools to expand pupils’ learning and who already had well developed systems of remote learning in place for homework, the transition is likely to have been, if not seamless, certainly less daunting.

But for those schools and teachers which lacked the resources, funding or technical know-how to navigate the bewildering range of software and resources available, the shift, almost overnight, to supporting children’s online learning has been much more difficult.

The NASUWT conducted a survey of members’ experiences of teaching in the period immediately following lockdown and found that 36% said they had not been provided with the IT equipment they needed to work from home. If teachers do not even have the kit they need, providing meaningful online learning is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Access to many educational opportunities is increasingly based on parents’ ability to pay

There was likely to be little or no time, understandably, before schools closed for any training or assistance to be provided for teachers in how best to organise and support pupils’ online learning, but as it looks likely that many pupils will be continuing to spend at least part of their time learning from home for many months to come there is a question about what help is needed for teachers.

The other side of the coin is the impact on pupils. This crisis has rightly generated much concern about the impact on disadvantaged children of schools closing. While the NASUWT is clear that schools must not reopen until the science suggests it is safe to do so, meeting the learning needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not in schools is likely to be more significant and pressing. It is also this group which is likely to face a greater struggle to access online learning.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the challenges affecting some children and young people whose parents lack either the finances to get connected or the digital literacy skills to support learning at home. While a lack of access to technology may have been a concern before the pandemic, it now represents yet another way in which access to many critical educational opportunities is increasingly based on parents’ ability to pay.

It is also likely that those families without access to technology are those most likely to be living in temporary accommodation or living in environments which are crowded or insecure in other ways. These pupils are statistically already likely to be behind their peers educationally and the digital divide is yet another barrier to their achievement. But schools alone cannot tackle these social inequalities.

Following representations by the NASUWT, the Government has announced a package to support access to online learning which it is making available through schools to some pupils. However, the Government needs to go much further, ensuring that all children have guaranteed access and by ensuring that investment in online learning is sufficient to reach every child who needs it. Simply equipping pupils with the resources to learn online may not be enough. All families need to be assured that they can make the most of these opportunities.

Ensuring equality of access to technology for pupils and teachers is going to be a key challenge for Government and for the system as a whole, but it is a challenge that needs to be addressed given the potential that the disruption to schooling is likely to continue for some time to come.


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