Digital competency versus digital accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on education worldwide.

As schools invariably closed within most countries during the height of the crisis, it has highlighted a disturbing digital divide within most nations.

This divide encompasses two problems: firstly, a lack of physical access to technology, such as little-to-no access to the internet, a laptop, or a PC suitable for learning; and secondly, a lack of digital skills, in both learners and teachers, preventing their full engagement with education.

According to OUP’s Addressing the Deepening Digital Divide survey, poor internet connectivity or access to a device was the most widely reported barrier to delivering digital learning. More than two-thirds of teachers (68 per cent) stated that they have experienced poor connectivity over the past 18 months, while 50 per cent cited a lack of access to devices as a barrier to digital learning.


reported 'devices being shared with multiple family members’ as the most widespread challenge

Teachers who participated in the survey unsurprisingly reported an uneven provision of computer equipment or internet access for students at home (42 per cent), while a similar proportion (37 per cent) said that unequal access to suitable devices presented a significant challenge when teaching during the pandemic. As a reminder that digital accessibility does not only affect learners, two in five teachers (39 per cent) reported that they had themselves experienced intermittent or weak broadband access.

When asked about the challenges facing learners during the pandemic, the top two responses flagged issues accessing devices; ‘devices being shared with multiple family members’ was the most widespread challenge (66 per cent), followed by ‘poor internet speed’ (57 per cent).

These challenges represent fundamental issues with schools delivering digital learning: if the learners are unable to access the material, then they are unable to participate.

In the US, a proposed (at the time of writing) infrastructure bill would invest $65 billion in high speed internet—one example of government investment that would help those in geographically remote or lower-income areas access digital education.

Digital accessibility is often the most visible face of the digital divide. However, results from the survey, and from wider sources, suggest the problem is more akin to two ends of a broken bridge. Digital competency is the opposite end of the bridge: presenting an almost equal challenge and possibly one that is less visible on a day-to-day basis.

Although exactly half of teachers surveyed said access to devices was a problem during the pandemic, slightly more (56 per cent) said that a lack of digital competency on the part of both learners and educators prevented their effective use of digital resources and acted as a barrier to learning.

'The main challenge has been the lack of training for both students and staff in efficient and effective use of digital platforms. There are many helpful resources out there, but it’s a minefield if you don’t know how to navigate and interlink these with your chosen platform.'

'The biggest disadvantage to students has been, in my experience, the inability of teachers (myself included) who have no previous experience of digital teaching platforms and no proper training (despite many requests) to build proper competency and confidence in the use of these.

I know there are many super digital resources available to support positive practices, but I still feel like I’m fumbling in the dark trying to make lessons as engaging as they should be under these trying circumstances.'

UK, Secondary School teacher

Associate Professor Dr Josie Barnard, an expert on digital exclusion, has argued that the concept of a ‘digital native’ is misleading and can actually hinder digital learning, as learners can be perceived to already have the necessary skills to engage.

‘It’s a basic fact that digital literacy is in a constant state of flux, as technology itself is in a permanent state of flux. The hidden challenge is that teachers and students alike can feel apprehensive about digital learning if they aren’t confident with the platforms and technologies.

Creative flexibility fosters the acquisition of digital skills by helping students transfer their existing skills—such as social media use—into an educational context.’

Some educators themselves also require additional support and training to transition to digital learning practices effectively. More than a quarter of respondents (26 per cent) cited a lack of teacher familiarity or understanding of tools and digital channels as a key challenge in delivering teaching and learning during the pandemic.


felt that a lack of training/assistance was a challenge to teaching

A further 27 per cent additionally felt that a lack of training or assistance on how to best deliver students’ online learning was a challenge to teaching and one in five (19 per cent) said they lacked access to digital educational resources. This supports OUP’s previous findings from a survey of 538 higher education instructors across the US, which found that 57 per cent of respondents felt that making online learning a ‘premium' experience that is as desirable as in-person learning was either ‘very challenging’ or ‘challenging’.

Moreover, those who had been teaching for longer (23 per cent of those with 21+ years’ experience) were more likely to find it challenging to manage the technology tools, than those with fewer years' experience (13 per cent of those with 10 years or less).