The closure of all educational establishments has been a shock to pupils, parents and schools alike. Pupils and teachers have been forced to operate remotely at very short notice, pupils have received fewer learning hours and had their curriculum cut, and much of the work set has assumed access to devices and home internet. Study after study has shown that these changes have disproportionately impacted pupils from lower income homes. Digital Access West Yorkshire’s own Claire Garside reflects:

“Lockdown happened very quickly and at a time when most schools didn’t have a school-wide policy for remote teaching and learning. Teachers from all classes or subjects hadn’t received any/enough training and support to be able to adapt to the change in circumstances. Digital exclusion and the impact on educational attainment, health and wellbeing needs to be addressed – people/families need to be supported to get online and connect with others.”

It’s easy to forget that digital is neither universal nor free. 22% of the UK’s population have lacked basic digital skills since long before the Covid-19 outbreak, and the less you earn, the less likely you are to spend your money on an internet connection. For example, only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 have home internet access, compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001.

It’s clear that throughout this crisis, schools have been working hard to try to give their pupils the best opportunities possible. But tasking children with work to do online assumes a good internet connection and access to appropriate devices. From the stats above, we can see that this approach excludes almost half of low income homes, and, to add insult to injury, those children falling through the cracks are already less likely to succeed at school. With schools setting learning tasks that require an internet connection at home, the gap is only likely to grow further during this crisis. Teaching staff are of course confronted with the harsh realities of these inequalities every day. As one head teacher said:

“I was talking to one family on Friday, when I was delivering free meals. I did take them a paper pack of work, because Mum said it was ‘pay the wi-fi or feed the children’ this month… Sometimes people simply can’t afford to pay for wi-fi.”

To extract maximum learning potential out of tech, there needs to be reinforcement across the board: socially and culturally as well as practically. While it’s a great start to make devices available in family homes, there also needs to be a sensitivity to how the tech is used – what role does it play in the home? What happens if we try to change the purpose of familiar tools? Are children emotionally ready to repurpose their ‘toys’ for learning? This, coupled with the practical constraint of inaccessible devices, poses serious challenges to learning from home. Another head teacher explained:

“The majority of children in school aren’t accessing any of the online learning that we’ve set. I know that some of them don’t have reliable internet. Most of them who have anything have phones or tablets. They’re often shared with siblings, so their access to something appropriate to work on is quite limited.”

The Government has acknowledged the issue up to a point, distributing 200,000 laptops and six-month internet access passes to care givers and disadvantaged pupils, but even this fails to address the magnitude of the problem.

Distributing equipment is a good start, but it is exactly that: just a start. It relies on the idea that parents, on the whole, have the time, skills and space at home to support school work outside of the school environment. A survey of teachers by the National foundation for Education Research (NfER) found that just 55 percent of parents are engaged in their child’s learning, while a UCL study suggests that pupils learning at home spent 2.5 hours a day on school work, on average, with one in five doing less than an hour a day. That’s two million children in the UK doing less than five hours of work a week, many of them in the free school meals category.

And even if students are able to do their work, there can be issues with assessment. Evaluating academic progress in these conditions is very difficult without knowing the hours spent or what opportunities the pupils have had to engage with the material. It’s worth noting that setting and assessing work remotely can be extremely labour intensive for teachers, who feel a great deal of care and responsibility towards their students and have had to rapidly convert their tried-and-true methods to suit the new landscape. One teacher told us:

“The most surprising thing was how much work was involved; it wasn’t a case of setting some work for an hour in the morning and taking the rest of the day off.”

Digital literacy is another, often overlooked, part of the equation. There are interactive websites that connect pupils with teachers, and unsurprisingly the schools with developed digital strategies have fared much better through all this. But in situations where parents – and teachers – don’t know how to use (for example) the interactive dashboards, they can’t help their children to get the full benefit.

So are there ways that educators can help children and young people to access learning materials without using the internet? Some schools are delivering paper packs of work to families, however there have been questions around the safety of travelling during lockdown. In general, schools have been keeping in touch with families via text and phone calls, and that goes some way to help.

It’s not all bad news, and we can end on a positive note. There have been indications that some pupils with certain special educational needs (SEND) may have benefited from the changes brought in by lockdown. According to the EPI Digital Divide paper:

“Some school leaders suggest that pupils with physical needs, such as hearing-impaired children, have also experienced learning gains, possibly due to having a quiet home learning environment and device assistance.”

It’s also clear that many teaching staff have rapidly upskilled, as they’ve been dropped into the deep end of digital communication, and everyone has been thinking more seriously about the value of digital tools, which feels like a net positive.

It’s encouraging, too, that there is now a decent amount of guidance available for schools adapting rapidly to a new lockdown situation, and services like the ongoing EdTech Demonstrator Programme for teachers to access. Centralised learning resources have proved a valuable support to many educators since lockdown, and brand new, high quality resources have cropped up at astonishing speed. The Oak National Academy, for example, was founded in April and has been widely adopted – with 220,000 daily users now taking part in more than 20 million lessons across 23 subjects.

A number of players in the tech sector have been offering their services to educators free of charge, too, either from April to July, or in the case of digital overlays company Singular, indefinitely. Singular’s CEO Andrew Heimbold explains:

“We launched Singular for Schools in 2019 to ensure that all schools have completely free access to our platform. Pre-COVID, schools used Singular as part of their curriculum in media classes or for informal broadcasting of school events. When the pandemic closed schools, the emphasis shifted towards educators using Singular overlays to augment their educational and community live streams e.g. this graduation ceremony was produced by students from their homes. Teachers have told us that using the platform has inspired students to think about careers in digital media and that it’s inspired them to use Singular for everything from advanced science lectures to spelling bees.”

These are extremely challenging times for everyone, and with schools starting up again in an environment of social distancing, local lockdowns and a global recession, the ‘new normal’ of schools and offices returning hasn’t removed much of the uncertainty. However, raising the profile of this problem can bring results surprisingly quickly.

When we look beyond expensive equipment and see technology as a useful social resource, we have a unique chance to come at tech from the other side; setting out our expectations according to how people really behave and what people really need, rather than taking our lead from the commercial operators. This could yet prove to be a valuable moment for redesigning a new relationship with technology within education – one that has little to do with the trendiest apps or methods, and which instead involves asking people what they can really make use of; an approach which, sometimes, might even involve putting tablets and laptops away and getting out a good, old-fashioned pen and paper.

This article was written by Leila Johnson

Header image by Thomas Park on Unsplash