Mind the gap: staff device shortages

Inequality of access to digital learning among students has, rightly, been a major topic of discussion during the pandemic. But it’s not a level playing field for academic staff either…

The extent to which the pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide among students is an issue that has received plenty of coverage in the last 12 months. The hard fact is that, due to differences in internet provision, home circumstances and a host of interconnected factors, life learning online at home is far easier and more convenient for some students than others. Less discussed, however, are the difficulties around digital poverty among academic staff.

Teachers and lecturers all need devices, infrastructure, training and time to deliver education effectively – but, in some cases, these requirements have been consistently overlooked. How has this impacted them – and, of course, their students?

‘A surprisingly complex question’

It’s useful, first of all, to define the digital divide as it exists among staff. Are we talking about disparities in resources; connectivity; training; or a mix of these (and other factors)?

“This is a surprisingly complex question,” reflects Charles Knight, associate dean (student experience) at Salford Business School. “We often think about this in terms of kit and training – but there is a geographical factor at play as well.”

Charles cites his own circumstances as an example. “As an academic, I’m lucky enough to have a one-gigabyte internet connection, which means that I can do anything from home. Only two streets over, a friend, who is also an academic, has very slow internet – making teaching online very, very difficult. So, although universities can provide staff training and development to an extent, we are all suffering from the lack of overall investment in UK broadband infrastructure.”

Given this, it is, says Charles, “amazing to consider how fast the sector moved quickly from ‘emergency response’ in March 2020 to reconfiguring modules so that digital was at the core”.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the digital divide both between and within countries and institutions,” reflects Lucy Shackleton, who has co-authored analysis into the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ (ACU) survey on digital engagement in Commonwealth universities during COVID-19.

“Unequal access to digital infrastructure and connectivity is a fundamental aspect of this divide. Infrastructure-related challenges – specifically internet speed, data costs and internet reliability – were the top three most frequently cited challenges associated with remote working for university staff (and students), in the ACU’s survey. Unsurprisingly, these infrastructure- and connectivity-related challenges are particularly prevalent among low- and lower-middle-income countries.”

Alongside this, Lucy points out, capacity and skills gaps are also fundamental in driving the digital divide at global, national and institutional levels. For example, 79% of respondents to the ACU survey cited staff training and confidence as major challenges associated with the online delivery of teaching and learning.

Discipline disparities

Besides connectivity discrepancies, another fault line in the digital divide relates to specific disciplines. “My background is information systems and digital businesses, so shifting online makes sense to me and is already embedded in my practice,” Charles reflects. “I know from talking to colleagues that this was more challenging for areas that are more practically focused.”

Mark Carrigan, postdoctoral research associate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and leader of the Post-Pandemic University network, offers another interpretation on the possible root of the problem: “The issues might not even be wholly digital. The sudden shift to working from home has revealed the stark disparities in material circumstances of those working within the sector.

“Infrastructure-related challenges – specifically internet speed, data costs and internet reliability – were the top three most frequently cited challenges associated with remote working for university staff (and students), in the ACU’s survey” – Lucy Shackleton, co-author, ACU survey

“It’s much easier to produce engaging digital content in a quiet and spacious home office, as opposed to using the kitchen table while you juggle work around your caring responsibilities. The technical aspects of the digital divide are crucial – but we also need to be aware of how they reflect and reinforce existing inequalities within higher education.”

Replication was ‘always doomed to fail’

Access to devices and headspace is one thing, but the digital divide among staff also refers to a lack of training and failure to adapt pedagogy. “One of the biggest challenges for staff across the sector was to forget many of the fundamental ‘building blocks’ that they relied upon and were common in the sector,” Charles reflects. “I know of academics trying to replicate two-hour lectures online – which was always doomed to fail.”

At Salford Business School, Charles and colleagues thought carefully about how staff should be spending their time. “Our core message was that time together online had to be highly interactive, with lots of opportunities for students to work together. Some interesting practices have emerged from the ground up – for example, staff using shared virtual notebooks with students to generate shared understanding. We also found some interesting uses of online spaces for students and staff to support each other, rather than the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ model.”

This adaptability meant a lot of work for all involved. “I don’t think it’s clear to people outside the sector the vast amount of effort and care taken over the last year to make sure that student outcomes are not impacted,” Charles reflects. “I can only speak for what I was involved in here at Salford – but the level of technical detail we went into to ensure students were not disadvantaged was phenomenal. All the way through, we were constantly thinking ‘if we make change X, how does it impact a student who only has device Y?’ and so on. I know this happened across the university – and sector.”

Creating ‘lasting change’

Lucy Shackleton echoes this sense of engagement with the new working methods. “The ACU’s research does offer some hope that the online experiment precipitated by COVID-19 will create lasting change. We are witnessing a rise in the number of individuals anticipating working online regularly; a clear improvement in perceptions of online and blended learning; and a high proportion of respondents agreeing that their institution has both the will and the capacity to develop high-quality online learning.”

“The sector effectively went through a forced upskilling, and I expect the baseline of expectation from universities, in terms of digital skills, will be higher now than pre-COVID” – Charles Knight, associate dean (student experience), Salford Business School

There have been other heartening examples of institutions rising to the challenges posed by COVID and remote learning. “We have seen some excellent examples of our member universities collaborating with telecommunications companies to provide affordable or free internet access to students,” states Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary general of the ACU. “These include Wits University in South Africa, which partnered with mobile network providers to offer zero-rated access to specific educational websites; and Ashesi University in Ghana, which offered 10GB monthly data bundles to students to help support the switch to online classes.”

‘A fundamental shift in attitudes towards CPD’

While these responses are encouraging, the larger challenges around staff connectivity and training point to a need for a fundamental shift in attitudes towards continuing professional development. “When most staff are struggling with increased workloads alongside the challenges which COVID-19 poses in private life, I can understand why professional development would feel like an additional and unwelcome burden,” says Mark Carrigan. “The provision of training is better than nothing – but it’s often too little too late, framing professional development as an individual responsibility which universities facilitate at a benign distance.

“In this sense, I think universities are now suffering the consequences of underinvestment in their staff and a culture of overwork which has denied academics the time, energy and resources necessary for digital upskilling and pedagogical innovation. If this is largely a matter of discretionary work in free time, it’s never going to be sustainable.

“To rectify this, professional development needs to be included (generously) in workload models – and universities need to invest, not only in the provision of training, but also in building communities to provide ongoing peer support. However, this is inherently difficult to do at a time of crisis, pointing back towards how brittle the system already was when the pandemic hit. The problems we’re now seeing are the outcomes of a research culture that was already in a state of crisis.”

With regards to effects on staff retention and recruitment, “talking to peers across the sector, I sense a bigger emphasis on digital skills than previously” Charles Knight reveals. “I know of peers going to job interviews where their teaching showcase was based around new practice that they had never performed before March 2020! The sector effectively went through a forced upskilling, and I expect the baseline of expectation from universities, in terms of digital skills, will be higher now than pre-COVID. I’m also hopeful this will lead to all sorts of innovations that will benefit students.”

Preparing for the ‘digital landscape’

This suggests that long-term, higher education institutes will emerge from this crisis better equipped for the digital landscape, and able to provide a backdrop of greater digital equality. Charles says: “Some universities have created new strategic roles that are explicitly about digital learning and how to further embed this into their general policy. At government level, I’d suggest the most straightforward response is technology bursaries for individual students to quickly create a level playing field – rather than overly complex managed schemes.”

“The pandemic is a clarion call to universities and policymakers to create conditions that ensure all staff and students are able to access online teaching, learning and research,” affirms Joanna Newman. “We have an opportunity to build towards greater digital equality by investing in quality online and blended education, and by embedding the lessons of 2020–21 into policy and practice.

“The ACU has called on governments and policymakers across the Commonwealth to help close the divide by prioritising funding for higher education; investing in tackling the digital divide; supporting university digital transformation initiatives; bringing university leaders, telecommunications companies, global employers and students together to develop a common agenda for the future of digital higher education; and providing a platform for institutions to share knowledge at different stages of their digital transformation journeys. Working together within the sector and beyond, we can improve digital equality and meet the demand for higher education globally.”

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