Technology is vital to keep disadvantaged children learning throughout the pandemic

As a result of the rapid transition to remote learning the very real digital divide between families was exposed.
The digital divide exposed

Ask anyone what they thought a new decade would bring and chances are they’re not going to say a global pandemic. The very unwelcome onset of COVID-19 has brought to light a lot of issues in society, and a major divide we’re seeing is the digital one.

Until the transition to remote learning, children and young people were accessing resources through their school. They were, for the most part, on a level playing field when it came to the technological and physical resources required.

However, the changes to education happened suddenly and with very little warning. Children and young people were expected to access their education online and all of a sudden, families were expected to have access to excellent internet speeds. They were expected to have access to devices, and multiple devices for multiple children. As a result, the very real digital divide between families was exposed.

The effect of the technological divide
According to a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians are using an increasing number of connected devices to do more online. However, while we are more connected than ever, the number of people actually using the internet is not growing, with factors such as age, geography, education and income defining access to and use of online resources.

During the first wave of the pandemic, State Schools’ Relief were inundated with support requests for devices and internet connectivity. More than 3,000 internet USBs were provided to students all over Victoria. This is on top of those provided by the Education Department. We heard numerous accounts of students trying to access online resources from an outdated mobile phone. The relief felt when students were provided with devices and internet USBs was expressed by both the schools and students themselves.

One student shared their gratitude with us, saying, “for the past four weeks, I have been using my uncle’s old laptop – one that he used for university 12 years ago. Needless to say, remote learning has been very challenging for me…and for a little while I felt helpless and scared that I wouldn’t be able to complete year 12 and attend uni to pursue my dreams. I can’t begin to explain how thankful I am … thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Remote learning is challenging enough. The requirement of being autonomous and responsible for their own learning is hard for any student of any age. However, for those students trying to work from home without a suitable space with a desk and chair, let alone a computer or access to the internet, made the challenges for those struggling with disadvantage almost insurmountable. Of course, schools did their best to support, however the experience of young people often relied on the resources available to them at home and the support around them.

How students are feeling
According to a report published by VicSRC, many students are feeling confused about the changes to schooling and are struggling to navigate the various platforms required to engage with their learning. The Learning from Remote Learning report found that students who could not manage to keep up felt stressed, isolated and overwhelmed by the experience. In turn, they lacked motivation, missing the interaction with their classmates as well as regular communication with their teachers.

One of the key determinants of success for the students was access to reliable internet and a device. This helped greatly with the engagement of children and young people. Of the 455 students interviewed, 91%% had access to the internet and a device, 7% had access to a device but not to reliable internet and 2% had internet access but no device.

What can we do?
As we find ourselves facing a second round of remote education, there are some key learnings for both students and educators. Expressed by the students themselves, the main takeaway is that students want to be empowered.

While none of the students wanted to move to a remote learning model permanently, they did find some positives that could be included in the school experience when onsite learning resumes. This includes allowing students to work at their own pace, integrating online options with face-to-face learning and a better school/life balance with better mental health support and a warmer school environment. For many students, class settings can be intimidating and asking for help or admitting you’re behind can be difficult. In terms of mental health, students suggested having wellbeing periods or shorter days to help alleviate stress.

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has been hugely disruptive to students’ education, especially when you factor in those from challenging backgrounds who may have limited access to online and digital resources. However, the transition to remote learning has highlighted a number of key issues that need to be addressed. Importantly, it has also provided a framework for betting supporting students from all backgrounds in the future.

Sue Karzis
Sue Karzis is the first female Chief Executive Officer of State Schools Relief, a Victorian based not for profit organisation that supports the needs of financially disadvantaged school students by providing them with new school uniforms, footwear and educational resources during times of vulnerability. Since her appointment, Sue has propelled the charity to record numbers of impact, assisting over 56,000 financially disadvantaged Victorian school children in 2018/19 alone with the number and value of items distributed exceeding 210,000 and $6.3M respectively.