Impacting the most disadvantaged

There is little doubt that that the pandemic has widened pre-existing opportunity, achievement, and digital skills gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students across the globe the hardest.

According to OUP’s Addressing the Digital Divide survey, a staggering 70 per cent of educators said the most disadvantaged students within their respective countries lost learning due to limited or no access to digital devices. In addition to this, 44 per cent of respondents felt that the wellbeing of disadvantaged students had been particularly negatively affected during the pandemic.

Furthermore, 58 per cent said disadvantaged students tended to receive less educational support from their parents and families: interestingly, this issue seemingly becomes more problematic the higher up the school age range the student is.

In the pre-primary school years (below 5-years-old), only 37 per cent of teachers reported that disadvantaged learners received less educational support from parents and family members than non-disadvantaged students, but this rises to 64 per cent by the time learners are in secondary school.

A third (33 per cent) of teachers reported that, of their disadvantaged students, those that did have access to digital devices were less able to use the technology effectively.

Differences in digital skills may be one aspect of the digital divide that is impacting the extent to which children are able to engage in and benefit from online education.

Global research by Di Pietro et al (2020) suggests that children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds tend to have less exposure to digital technologies both at home and at school, and consequently may have less well-developed digital skills.

This is backed up by the International Computer and Information Literacy study, which highlights that children from less advantaged economic backgrounds perform worse on measures of computer and information literacy and computational thinking than their peers from more advantaged environments. A lack of digital skills, therefore, appears to be a key challenge that needs to be addressed, if we want to successfully eradicate digital learning inequalities and engage all children in meaningful remote learning activities.

In developing countries, the poorest students living in places with the most outdated digital infrastructure have been least able to take advantage of virtual schooling. According to Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education at the World Bank:

‘For children and young people, especially girls, from the poorest families and rural communities, as well as those with disabilities, and those from minority groups, access to remote learning is largely out of reach and they are left with little opportunity to catch up.’

There has certainly been a concerted effort from global charities such as the World Bank, as well as ministries of education within developing countries, to quickly address issues regarding digital infrastructure and access to devices during the pandemic. Some countries have been particularly innovative. Desperate to maintain at least some learning, India for example increased EdTech adoption and access significantly through the roll out of cheaper smart phones and tablets, combined with the lowest data prices in the world.

Nonetheless, according to UNICEF, students from developing countries, on the whole, continue to suffer as a result of a lack of access to computers, mobile phones and internet.

UNICEF cites that some children in the Philippines have even been forced to climb onto roofs just to get a signal.

UNICEF has consequently urged education authorities to reopen schools as soon as possible, in countries where millions of students are still not allowed to return to classrooms 18 months into the pandemic.

Ethnicity can add an additional barrier too: a UNESCO report into global inequalities in education found that in Latin America and the Caribbean, segregation by ethnic origin is even more widespread than segregation by socio-economic status.

The same report found that in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru, there is persistent inequality by indigenous background, even after controlling for social class.

However, it is not just the disadvantaged in developing countries that are a concern. Research shows that there are also very real discrepancies between the rich and the poor within economically more advanced nations, especially with regard to the ability to access digital technology and participate effectively in online learning initiatives.

Studies have shown that racial inequalities in education are prevalent within many economically advanced countries.

Research by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), for example, found that half of all indigenous children in the US lack either computers or paid high-speed internet access (or both) at home. Moreover, more than one-third of Black and Latinx children based in the US lack computers or high-speed internet at home, compared with only one-fifth of non-Hispanic white children.

Children without computers or high-speed internet at home were, consequently, already at an educational disadvantage before the coronavirus pandemic and, due to the growing need for students to access resources and submit assignments online, this has only worsened.

It is clear here that geography plays a role in these inequalities: a lack of physical infrastructure in a student’s local area, for example, contributes to digital exclusion. However, in a vicious circle, some already marginalized groups are inherently more likely than others to live in areas with poor connectivity. For example, in the US, nearly one in five reservation residents has no internet at home.

'The murder of Black citizens, by police, during the daylight, on film has been a significant ongoing mental health concern to Black teachers and students. The number of traumas in this area has been relentless and heightened the already unacceptable racial tensions of our nation.'

USA Secondary Teacher

These challenges amongst poorer socio-economic families tend to be reiterated across the developed world. For example, a study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that UK parents in the richest families are around 15 per cent more likely than those in the poorest fifth to report that their child’s primary or secondary school offers active resources such as online classes, or video or text chatting. Worryingly, more than half (58 per cent) of primary school students from the least advantaged families do not even have access to their own study space.

Students with a disability are often already disadvantaged by the education system. During the rushed and at times chaotic switchover to digital learning at the start of the pandemic, the needs of students with disabilities may have been further overlooked. Researchers offer this perspective from China on the challenges during the pandemic: 'education policy design lacks a disability perspective; technology offered is not accessible; mainstream schools overlook the responsibility for educating students with disabilities, and parents of students with disabilities are unprepared for distance and home-schooling.'

They added that:

'We need to take the COVID-19 emergency as a lesson to remind us that we should incorporate a disability lens when designing the education policy and practice in the emergency preparedness and response in the future.'

A recent study by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has found that many UK children and young adults with special educational needs or a disability (SEND) have found school closures during the pandemic particularly challenging.

However, although many SEND pupils found less structured learning and less frequent and predictable teacher engagement difficult, the study found that some of those on education, health and care (EHC) plans with access to devices and good internet connectivity did, in fact, experience accelerated learning during school closures.

Explanations for this are not yet fully researched, but EPI has reasoned that the transition to home learning may have been eased for some SEND students by new means of accessibility. These include text-to-speech technology, speech-to-text technology, voice recognition, predictive text, and support with executive function.