Digital poverty is leaving students behind in an age of online learning

Sir Michael Barber has written in The Times about the launch of a major review of digital learning and teaching. The article highlights the challenges of digital learning, particularly 'digital poverty', following an OfS poll of students during the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement was also covered by THE, Wonkhe, BBC Radio 1, Times Radio, the Press Association and The Guardian.

Read the full article from The Times Red Box:

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the ingenuity of our universities, many of which transitioned to digital teaching under immense pressure. But as many will admit, the arrangements put in place were far from perfect.

New survey data from the Office for Students helps to show how students were impacted. The overall picture is mixed: just over half of students were satisfied with teaching quality during lockdown; but over a third were not. Perhaps, these figures might have been tolerable in an emergency. But they would surely not be tolerable in the new academic year.

What’s striking is how many students struggled to access the digital teaching on offer. Over half said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection and one in five lacked access to a computer, laptop or tablet.

The pandemic revealed the striking impact of digital poverty, in which many students’ ability to learn from home was disrupted – sometimes severely – by poor access to digital infrastructure.

Universities have been working hard to improve their offer for the new academic year – what should students expect? Returning students inevitably missed out on some vital learning last year. They will need support to catch up. First years have in many cases had no teaching at school since March. They will need a fast start, a crash course in studying effectively. After a summer of frustrated plans, students will arrive with high expectations. Universities must be well-prepared.

Crucially, the problem of digital poverty identified in our survey does not stop at home. It matters on campus too. Over half of students said their learning was damaged by lack of access to appropriate online materials, with one in ten impacted severely.

With the prospect of local lockdowns and possibility of squeezed physical infrastructure, universities must improve their digital offering and ensure all students can access it. Without action we risk swathes of students being left behind — particularly the most disadvantaged.

To help address these challenges I have launched a major review of digital teaching and learning in English higher education. We want to know about what worked during the pandemic, what didn’t, and opportunities for the future. It’s not just about enduring the present crisis but setting future generations up for success.

For universities, that task starts now. Today’s students should expect high-quality blended education combining face-to-face with the best of digital teaching. Acting on student feedback will be crucial.

A major benefit of the crisis could be the development of improved teaching and learning for all students. A return to the pre-pandemic ways, which were sometimes mediocre, would be a frustrating missed opportunity.

Published 04 September 2020
Last updated 09 September 2020
09 September 2020
Link to The Guardian's coverage added

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