The digital divide is a big, big deal...but it can't slow us down

We must learn from how on-line learning engages some of the hardest to reach young people

Robin Street

Co-Principal, UCL Academy

Lockdown.  Right, let’s deal with this. We can do this.

Distance learning: Ok, that’s massive. Quick –  set up the online school, or at least accelerate it really, really fast. Wow, teachers are brilliant aren’t they? Who knew?  I thought Mr Jones hated tech? Have you seen their video. Genius. 

Oh, wait. The Digital Divide. It’s big. As in, really, really big. Ok, hard copies of work, to be posted or via personal delivery. Do all we can to provide some sort of work on paper to keep everyone learning and ensure it is not a nightmare for parents. We can only do our best. 

So… it’s agreed, no online learning then? Yes, let’s not, because so many can’t regularly access it? Yes, that seems fair. Isn’t it? No wait, that’s not fair. Actually let’s accelerate because this is a huge opportunity and actually it is quite good and for some it really works? And on top of that Google classroom seems to be powered by magic. And have you seen how child you-know-who seems to be better at online learning than normal school?

No, no. Too much too soon. Stick to paper, that’s fairer to everyone. School will be back  to normal soon. And that family has only one device so can’t all use it at the same time. Oh, hold on,  I think the government just said we are not back until September. Right. Online learning then. Surely we have to.  Yes that’s right, kids have phones, and the laptop works…sometimes…and the wifi is ok, if the data doesn’t run-out. Oh. Right. They don’t have wifi. Buy them a dongle?

Let’s give out devices! Yes! Donations to the rescue. What? Not quite enough? So, I can give one to Jasmine? No, she’s leaving this year. No point. No point? that’s not right, they are off to a different school, they need support. But what about those in year 4? They have to be  first choice. But the year 10s have  got GCSEs next year.  Oh, fine,  so it’s just about the exams is it?  No, I didn’t mean that, but …. Surely…AARGH. My head hurts.

So, defo not to Primary then. Too young and screens are bad. Really? Aren’t we past that? It is 2020 and parents do know what they are doing. I think. 

What is everyone else doing? The private sector is doing WHAT? 5 hours of live lessons a day!? Ok, so we have to do something then, otherwise society is going to be @£$%@.

Right, let’s agree then… as a minimum let’s make sure all vulnerable students in the borough get one. Yes. Good. Can’t argue with that. How much? How many? What do you mean you don’t think they are vulnerable?

Enough is enough. I am going to email all parents to tell them all our plans. Email sent. Done……what’s that? HOW many have changed their emails?

As a school we knew the digital divide was going to be one of our biggest challenges once lockdown began.  And it really has been. Donations and reviewing budget allocation has allowed us to do all we can to address it. But it is such a challenge and so complex logistically, financially and ethically.

However,  some of the data coming through regarding the online engagement of some of our most vulnerable and challenging students is exceptional. The creativity, energy and planning that all staff have put into it is superb. The response of parents has been grateful and supportive.

So what next then? Have we learned anything that will make us better when ‘normality returns’? Here are three things.

1. “That’s not an audit. THIS is an audit”

Like so many schools we had a list of students with devices and audited again just before lockdown to check we were up to date. Accordingly we planned and acted and where we could we gave out more devices wherever we could. Job done. No, not done. How many share the device? How old is the device? Who owns the device? When can one child use it? How good is the internet? Is it wifi or is it 4G data? Does it have a keyboard or is it just a touchscreen? Is it too old to download that amazing new Shakespeare program that everyone is using?

The Digital Divide is so much more than just about the number of devices.

2. “Everyone has a story”

Schools will have plans, processes and details, whether in lockdown or not,  for the most complex families. That is some of the most important and highest priority work that we do. This period of time has reminded us that everyone has a story. In exploring the digital divide during lockdown we have learned more about families that we assumed had no challenges or difficulties. In working with families to support them during these difficult times, it has given us a vital reminder that life for students at home always has context. Understanding the context of every single student as best we can,  must always be our first priority.

3. “Online learning really REALLY, works for some students”

There are some students, who during a normal day, featured on everyone’s naughty list. These same students absolutely love online learning. It’s not just that they are more engaged, they are more polite, more focused, more effective and overall far better learners. And they are sustaining it.  And their parents can’t believe it. And it seems that it’s not just our kids at our school. It’s a thing. For their sake and for the sanity of their teachers, this is very, very good news.

The obstacles to online learning are significant and serve as a constant reminder of the inequalities across our school system. But that cannot mean we slow down. In fact the lessons are that we must do more. We must ask for more help. We must push ourselves to do all we can to remove the obstacles and reduce the digital divide. Not just in 2020 because of the challenges lockdown provides in the moment, but as a statement of intent and purpose for an education system we owe to all young people.

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