The Covid-19 lockdown has necessitated schools up and down the country to recommend apps and digital offerings as a primary means of keeping in touch with students and for setting and assessing work. However, an estimated 1 million CYP and their families in the UK don’t have adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. There is an unintended consequence of the drive to distance learning, in the widening of the disadvantage gap as a result of the technology available in homes. 42% of young people in large families (5+) share at least one device with someone else in their household. 58% say they are sometimes or often unable to go online for this reason. So how can we best bridge the digital divide?
The current lockdown is exacerbating this issue with devices being used by parents working from home, and by older siblings being required to access digital classroom offerings during school hours. Even when families do have cash to invest in additional devices for the home to manage at this most testing of times, it is proving increasingly challenging to find anywhere that has a stock of affordable devices. Many schools have refreshed their pupil surveys on devices that can be used at home; if your school hasn’t surveyed staff and parents to understand the access students have to devices now may be the right time.
How schools can support disadvantaged students to access an appropriate device and get connected to the internet?
We delivered seminars on the digital divide at our Technology in Schools Showcase back in February. In preparation for these, we worked with a number of schools that had adopted 1:1 device schemes. These schools recognised that the greatest impact of EdTech is achieved when devices can go home with students. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to access a payment scheme that halved expected payments. Due thought had also been given to providing sufficient spaces in schools where students could work online using school WiFi networks or connect to sync work that had been completed in offline mode at home. Clearly in the current climate neither strategy is effective. Alternatives are needed to ensure that students are not left behind because of a lack of device or connectivity.
Helping students to access devices
Apps and digital classroom offerings are Cloud based and therefore the specification of devices is minimal; students will need a web browser. There are three key sources that schools can tap into to ensure that every disadvantaged pupil has access to an adequate device:
- Loan library. If the school has a set of mobile devices such as IPADs or Chromebooks, consider lending out to families. A simple home/school agreement can be developed and signed by the student. Schools will need to give due regard to insurance arrangements in the event that the device is damaged in any way.
- Order a stock of new low spec devices and gift them to students for the duration of the Covid emergency and utilise them in school once students are back in the classroom. Alternatively students could be loaned the device for the duration of their time in the school, given the wider educational benefits that access to a 1:1 device will deliver. Where possible ensure compatibility with existing devices e.g. Google, Apple etc.
- Order a stock of refurbished devices. There are a number of reputable companies out there that are now supplying refurbished devices suitable for use in educational settings. To start with, we would recommend ICT-direct, or CFA Trading Ltd.
Getting students access to devices is often easier than enabling connectivity. As evidenced above, many schools that were expert in digital classroom offerings prior to Covid-19 were able to ensure that students without a connection at home were not disadvantaged by reducing the need for home internet connectivity, utilising the features of offline modes and providing plenty of connected spaces in school.
The reality is that whilst providing internet access at home to all students has been prohibitively expensive, some schools in Hertfordshire have made mobile broadband available to some groups of disadvantaged students. However, they were hamstrung by costs of rolling schemes out to all disadvantaged students in a school. Our research shows that enabling home connectivity remains an expensive investment for schools but one that is arguably necessary in this unprecedented situation given that public spaces that provide free WiFi including libraries are shut.
Three options for mobile broadband
- Mobile Broadband Device commonly known as MiFi. The advantage of a MiFi is that multiple devices can be connected at once (up to 10 people on 10 different devices) meaning that all children in the family can be connected at the same time which if learning in traditional school hours affords pragmatism for families. Private Wi-Fi networks are secure and schools can elect to buy a dataplan that will enable needs to be met. The downside is that schools will need to sign up for longer term contracts, typically a year as minimum. £150 can buy schools plans of 5GB data on a 4G network for 12 months. This amount of data should be sufficient to ensure school work can be completed by several children in each household.
- Mobile Dongle. A dongle plugs into the USB port in a device and looks similar to a USB storage stick. The disadvantage of dongles is that only one device can be connected at once, schools would need to buy one dongle per disadvantaged child in a household therefore. They are often more expensive than WiFi too. The advantage is that Pay As You Go deals are commonly available. Schools can buy a dongle and then load a data allowance to be used over a set amount of time (usually 30 days). The data bundles available vary, 15GB of data to be used over 90 days can be purchased for £25.
- The simplest way to get a device connected is through a Data only SIM card. These work exactly like SIM cards for your mobile phone, except they only have a data allowance with no calls or texts. The SIM can be inserted to the card slot of certain iPads and tablets and it will get you online. As with a dongle, the drawback is that only one device can be connected at once but the advantage is that this provides a much more temporary solution that doesn’t requires schools to commit to deals for 12 months. 6GB of data can be purchased for £25 which would get a student through a month of distance learning.
We recommend looking at mobile broadband devices and the best data plans through organisations such as U Switch. Using an independent retailer will give you the pick of the best deals by network provider.
As with all EdTech investments, your Tech partner should be able to support you acquiring mobile broadband for any students that do not have connectivity at home.
Disadvantaged students face a number of barriers to learning. The prolonged closure of schools disrupts the deliberate policies put in place by schools to ensure that technical barriers are overcome. Unless schools can ensure that students have access to an appropriate device and an internet connection they will be more disadvantaged than ever, and an increase in the digital divide.
Through using some of the advice appropriate to your school in this blog, schools can overcome the immediate technical barriers, thereby focusing on overcoming some of the broader challenges. If you would like to know more about how Herts for Learning are working with schools to overcome the digital divide in these challenging times, contact our technology in schools team for more information.