Online learning is exposing digital divide, sector leaders warn

The chief executives of Universities UK and Jisc have raised concerns that poor internet access is exacerbating educational inequality

Online learning is exposing a damaging digital divide within the UK student body, higher education sector leaders have warned.

The chief executives of Jisc, Universities UK (UUK) and the Association of Colleges have written to the government to outline their concerns that poor internet access will exacerbate educational inequality.

Students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, or those living in parts of the country with limited internet access, are being left behind as higher education moves to the digital sphere, the sector chiefs have said.

The leaders have pressed the culture secretary Oliver Dowden and regulator Ofcom to work with internet providers to remove data tariffs and give FE and HE students free access to educational websites. Similar schemes have been launched in Japan, South Africa and the Republic of Ireland, the letter’s authors added.

A number of disadvantaged students don’t have a landline, making mobile the only solution. Giving tariff-free access to educational resources during this national crisis  will help ensure no one falls behind
– Paul Feldman, Jisc

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore has raised concerns about the impact distance learning would have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students.

Writing in the Guardian, Mr Skidmore said: “Face-to-face work is especially important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And they may find it harder to study in environments that are not conducive to learning.

“Remote learning must not allow these groups of students to become ever more remote. A 2017 study showed that students from disadvantaged backgrounds ‘consistently perform worse in an online setting than they do in face-to-face classrooms’. The study added that taking online courses increases their likelihood of dropping out and stalls their progress.”

According to the most recent data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 18% of the HE student body are from the lowest quintile of the index of multiple deprivation. These learners are more likely than other students to have poor digital provision in their home address, Jisc experts suggested.

“Thousands of students are now learning online at home, where both broadband and access to mobile devices is prohibited by availability, connectivity and cost.

“The FE and HE sectors have worked very hard to successfully ensure the continual provision of teaching and learning online but, put simply, this is unaffordable and inaccessible for many learners,” the CEOs wrote.

Jisc said many students were reliant on their mobile’s data bundle for at-home internet access, and that, according to its analysis, average UK phone contracts are capped at between one and 10Gb per month.

In contrast, Jisc estimates a student would use between 30 and 50Gb a month accessing Virtual Learning Environments, eBooks, presentations, lectures and online video conferencing.

An NUS survey of 10,000 higher and further education students found that 20% who had been offered online learning did not agree that they were able to access it adequately.

Jisc’s Dr Paul Feldman  said: “We know that, for many learners, broadband is a problem, either due to low bandwidth or because they’re sharing bandwidth with other members of the family, so mobile data is their preferred solution.

“A number of disadvantaged students don’t have a landline, making mobile the only solution. Giving tariff-free access to educational resources during this national crisis  will help ensure no one falls behind, while also delivering on the  government’s edtech strategy, which seeks to remove barriers to education and improve educational outcomes using technology.”

UUK’s Alistair Jarvis added that closing the digital divide for disadvantaged students “by allowing them to access the vital resources they need without charge” should be a priority.


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