Digital inequality: is another edtech strategy already overdue?

We know about digital inequality, but why hasn’t more progress been made?

What lessons has Gavin Williamson learned since classrooms closed on 20 March? He has likely learned one thing that will linger; it’s unpleasant to be held personally responsible for a bad set of exam results. In a system which usually judges its staff on end-of-year assessments, it’s novel for a politician to be the focus of the blame game.

But there is something else Mr Williamson should have learned in the last five months – it’s time to bridge digital inequality. And soon. The lockdown has brought the disparity into sharp relief: it’s now clear from numerous reports and surveys that teachers and schools were ill-prepared for a shift to digital education, and it’s the least-advantaged young people that have missed out most.

The reports have also highlighted that a new way forward is needed, not just to cope with local lockdowns, but to gear our public education system up for the future that has arrived.

Mounting pressures

For four weeks from the end of May, Education Technology (ET) surveyed hundreds of teachers and lecturers. One state primary school teacher told the magazine: “We have had to learn on our feet and technology is changing the way we work at an unprecedented speed. There are huge pressures on teachers to close attainment gaps. I’m even more worried about my workload when I go back to school and must teach using the blended learning model.

“Our job is changing, and we are going to have to figure our way through this which, to be honest, is what teachers always do.”

Although positive about the opportunity to “revisit the curriculum, to look at what should and must be taught”, their overriding concern was that the pressures of long hours, regulatory oversight, overloaded curriculums and underfunded schools would drown out constructive conversations about technology within pedagogy.

A senior teacher at a private further education college told ET that “had [e-learning] been mandated… as a norm, educators and their learners would have been equipped to deal with remote learning”, but rearward-looking government policy, funding models and teacher attitudes had meant “no one was prepared”.

Money talks

Statistics suggest, however, that some schools that closed on 20 March were prepared for distance learning.

According to a survey by Teacher Tapp, a higher percentage of pupils at independent schools (79%) reported receiving online classes than state school pupils – and even within the state sector, secondary pupils from the wealthiest households were more likely to be offered online support (64%) than their peers from the poorest fifth of households (47%).

This inequality is likely down to private schools’ preparedness and resourcing – previous surveys indicate that teachers in the private sector were better prepared for e-learning, and lower pupil-to-staff ratios make online tutorials more feasible.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Sutton Trust’s research revealed that 60% of private secondary schools had an online platform in place to receive work compared to 23% of the most deprived schools.

These perceptions are supported by a study from UCL’s Institute of Education, using data from the Understanding Society panel. The study suggested nearly a quarter of those eligible for free school meals (24.9%) were engaging for an hour or less per day – relative to 18.4% of pupils not on free school meals – and one in five had no access to a computer at home, compared to 7% of their peers. A combination of poor infrastructure and poor digital learning tools have exacerbated existing inequalities.

Who falls behind is left behind

Digital inequality is inextricably linked to other forms of inequality. A digital coldspot map, designed by academics at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2017, could double as a map of socioeconomic deprivation. It is England’s far-flung rural areas and tightly packed, inner-city estates that are left behind.

Government has moved to alleviate some infrastructure issues; on 19 April, the DfE announced that disadvantaged children in year 10, together with care leavers and those with social workers, would be given free devices in a bid to ease remote learning during lockdown. Reported delays in the scheme’s roll out concerned many, including the Sutton Trust, who called for the scheme to be extended to all year groups up to year 13.

Dr Ellen Helsper, a professor of digital inequalities at the LSE, uses three words to explain digital inequality in the 21st century: infrastructure, skills and outcomes. Infrastructure is the most easily addressed of the three because it requires “top-down, universal policymaking”, but it’s the inequality of skills and outcomes that Helsper says government must now focus on.

Helsper wants to dispel the myth of ‘the digital native’ – the assumption that all of Generation Z are experts in tech by virtue of having been born in the 21st century.

While many over-60-year-olds have a story of their grandchild helping them sync their devices, do children receive the skills they need to thrive in a digital world? Helsper wants government to question whether young people have the skills to exploit technology to its fullest. That does not mean, she reiterates, a maniacal focus on “coding”, but also an understanding of digital literacy, digital communication skills and digital team-working: ICT’s answer to ‘soft skills’.

Closing the outcomes gap

Then there’s the outcomes gap: in short, children from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same standard of education do not achieve the same outcomes as their more advantaged peers.

In Helsper’s view, tech doesn’t drive social mobility in the way many policymakers envisage. “There’s a wishful thinking that digital interventions are going to solve socioeconomic and sociocultural inequalities.

“The digital world amplifies these things. Unless we deal with discrimination, sexism, racism and socioeconomic inequalities in everyday life in education, there’s no digital patch that can put it all right. I think that is one of the biggest problems in this country still; strategies have not joined up sufficiently.”

Improving the quality of digital resources is an educational priority.

A survey of teachers by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) suggests that engagement rates appear to have been higher in schools with virtual learning environments (VLEs) and learning management software (LMS); but perhaps most importantly, the survey suggested that schools using these tools were 13% more likely to have high levels of engagement amongst disadvantaged pupils throughout lockdown.

Crucially, however, the digital tools are just one aspect of the equation. An Education Policy Institute (EPI) roundtable revealed that teachers tended to find quick, verbal check-ins with pupils in small groups a better way of monitoring and assessing student progress than engagement dashboards. Helsper, a keen proponent of tech-enabled teaching, says a multi-stakeholder audit is required to identify where tech can usefully contribute.

Dr Sandra Leaton-Gray, associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, and a former teacher, singles out government, publishers and edtech companies for opprobrium.

“A lot of schools signed up to EducationCity, but that keeled over regularly and the resources on there were very weak. In fact, nobody had high-quality, pre-prepared resources available to schools. Teachers didn’t have the time, headspace or technical ability sometimes to do this shift overnight.

“The fantastic online curriculum that the BBC had developed, BBC Jam, had been killed off by publishing companies who saw it as a direct threat to their push towards online digital textbooks. We had binned a system and removed all our resilience. We were left with BBC Bitesize, which wasn’t sufficiently up-to-date and across the content that was needed. The BBC tried to start generating lessons, but they weren’t pitched at the right level because they didn’t have the advisory groups in place.

“Oak Academy was yet another initiative where people flailed about and put random stuff up online that wasn’t sequential, or quality controlled to the right level. These things take years to get right. You can’t do it overnight in the middle of a pandemic. We were doomed by March 23 because we let provision become a free market wild west.”

The EPI suggested in its virtual roundtable in July that government must now lead “a thorough audit of teachers’ capability to operate remotely and facilitate digital learning”. Gray goes further; she says the time has come to give teachers training, time and money to develop their own resources. As a former Open University lecturer, Gray says good, “multimedia” digital teaching courses take time and millions of pounds of investment. Only through the creation of such resources can blended learning ever become a viable next step.

The future is flexible

An online survey of 526 children aged 10 to 18 conducted by YouGov on behalf of Teacherly – a community of teachers using technology to create and deliver lessons remotely – suggests that almost three quarters (73%) of children would like flexible, distance learning to become more commonplace.

Surveys like this suggest it is at least appropriate to consider what benefits a well-sequenced online module might bring to our education system. School-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) programmes have demonstrated the impact a successful school, in close partnerships with universities, can have on training and standards in a local area. Well-produced distance learning resources could be easily shared within a community of schools and help to spread specialisms and best practice within a cluster of excellence.

Imperial College is set to launch a new massive open online course (MOOC) for further maths A-level students in a long-term partnership with The Hg Foundation, a not-for-profit edtech organisation. The free Imperial programme, called Imperial Further mA*ths, will be delivered by Imperial’s academics and students and aims every year to offer 150 students from lower-income backgrounds “sustained support throughout years 12 and 13 to…tackle the most challenging elements of the further maths A-level curriculum”. University-led models like that could help bridge the gap in good-quality online modules, but they need funding and collaboration.

“We had binned a system and removed all our resilience. We were left with BBC Bitesize, which wasn’t sufficiently up-to-date and across the content that was needed. The BBC tried to start generating lessons, but they weren’t pitched at the right level because they didn’t have the advisory groups in place” – Dr Sandra Leaton-Gray

A rallying cry for investment

Speaking on behalf of the Education Policy Institute, Rhys Spence told ET: “If we want to roll out national interventions on device and internet access, we need to first consider establishing a set of minimum expectations for schools, students and teachers, which might take the form of minimum digital capabilities at the school level, so that it’s less easy to opt in or opt out of being ‘digitally enabled’.

“The South Korean government has successfully rolled out devices and internet access to every pupil that needs it, and in Japan, the government has committed to providing every pupil with a device by 2023.

“We should seriously consider doing this in the UK at least for the most disadvantaged pupils, with the more immediate focus on ensuring continuity of learning if further local lockdowns cause extended periods of remote learning.

The main stumbling block for a lot of these initiatives is the ability to roll them out comprehensively across the targeted pupil population, as we have experienced in the UK with the slower than planned roll out of the laptop distribution scheme.”

All this sounds expensive, but Leaton-Gray maintains that per-pupil funding in England is comparable with other leading nations who appear to achieve much better outcomes. It’s a matter of distribution, she says. The procurement of edtech is another ‘blindspot’ for the education sector, she explains. Spending power should be focused on “multimedia products” and “digital textbooks”, rather than “gimmicks” like “biometric sign-in systems for visitors”.

With workplaces and universities shifting rapidly, schools must prepare the next generation to use, communicate and teach others using digital tools. It’s high-time we gave England’s edtech strategy a progress check.

You might also like: Roundtable: Lessons learned? The digital future of education


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