“This is about the new normal,” declared a teachers’ union member at yesterday’s Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit, which tackled the issue of education and the digital divide. The comment succinctly captured a chorus of personal experience and insight that reverberated with real feeling through the discussion. As the title of the roundtable itself suggested, this “new normal” arguably encompasses both the reality of blended online and offline learning that will endure beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and the realisation of the profound digital inequalities that are exacerbating an education gap for already-disadvantaged students. 

The discussion on education rather fittingly focused on what we could learn from the pandemic moment to inform a more digitally and educationally equitable future. Speakers universally shared a concern and commitment to apply lessons about what worked and what failed to future strategic planning about technology in education. As one speaker put it, the worry is that because this period has been so challenging, educators will now “walk away and just say ‘thank goodness’.” 

But none of the roundtable contributors seemed inclined to walk away. Speakers included three former Secretaries of State for Education or Children, MPs chairing other APPGs for Social Mobility and Education Technology, the Shadow Minister for Schools, the General Secretaries of the NASUWT and NEU, senior representatives of the National Association of Head Teachers, Ofsted, Teach First, UNICEF, BESA, the Learning Foundation, Times Higher Education, and Digital Unite. Several speakers recounted first-hand experiences of families asking for help accessing devices and connectivity during lockdowns — and many receiving it through schemes like the Department for Education’s Get Help With Technology programme. And there was much praise for teachers and schools, as well as community initiatives, like local football clubs, that stepped up to provide digital resources to children in need. 
It was clear that the pandemic exposed the scale of a longstanding problem: today, digital exclusion is a key contributor to social disadvantage. According to a report by the Sutton Trust, in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, just 10 percent of teachers said their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning. And Ofcom estimates that more than 1.7 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet at home.

And the disparities were greatest for the most disadvantaged; a UCL survey found that one in five children receiving free school meals had no computer access at home. A survey by TeachFirst reported that 84 percent of schools with the poorest students did not have enough devices and internet access to ensure they could keep learning.

In considering how we learn from the crisis and adapt to a new normal, several forward-looking themes emerged over the course of the discussion:

Teachers need support and training to make the most of digital technologies for learning.

“Technology is a tool, not an end in itself” was a repeated refrain in the roundtable. Strategic thinking around a digital education needs to focus on how teachers and technology can work together to deliver a better education — which also means a fairer and more equitable educational experience. There were many anecdotal lessons learned during the pandemic about best practice in online and hybrid learning. For example, one speaker pointed out that “there was a quiet accrual of more mundane uses of technology,” citing online vocabulary quizzes for foreign languages as an example. Although the “digital classroom” often conjures images of smart whiteboards and virtual reality headsets, there are fairly simple digital tools available to teachers that are under-utilised for engaging students in traditional classroom settings.

But teachers need training to make the most of digital technologies. Several speakers were part of the education system when information technology (IT) was a new frontier, and one recalled how “tech was used by some and feared by others,” which led to different learning experiences for students in the classroom. Many nodding heads in my Zoom grid seemed to indicate that this is still a relevant issue. Another speaker pointed out that young aspiring teachers are often assumed to have digital skills, and as a result, digital skills are not included in teacher training. But it will be crucial to develop pedagogy around online and hybrid learning, with a distinct focus on how to integrate digital literacies and technologies into teaching. Speakers raised open questions, such as “what is tech good at, and what are people good at, and how can they work together?” Or, “when is face-to-face teaching essential and when could online learning be more effective?” 

I would venture to suggest that behind these important questions about best practice and pedagogy is a need for immediate research on learning experiences during the pandemic with the people who delivered them: teachers. This research must include deep, thoughtful qualitative insights in order to develop better teacher training and equip teachers with strategies that work, and it needs to be done now — while the learning is fresh.

Education extends into the home.

The digital divide in education reflects a societal divide, and we cannot fix one without addressing the other. Schools are often expected to compensate for lack of support at home for children — they are meant to be great levelers. But speaker after speaker pointed out how schools cannot do this leveling alone. There is an educational continuum between school and the home and community, so thinking about education means thinking about all of these domains at once. 

The pandemic blurred the lines between school and home, drawing attention to the ways in which different private environments impact learning. For example, some children have quiet, private spaces to study, while others have to share devices and space, contending with constant distractions and demands on their time and attention. Roundtable speakers pointed out that this has always been the case; online learning during the pandemic just made these differences more obvious. 

As Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone write in their book based on survey data and qualitative interviews, Parenting for a Digital Future, “although both better-off and poorer parents try to use technology to confer advantage, they are very differently positioned to do so.” Socio-economic differences are especially pronounced in the home, where children are influenced by the dynamics of family and space. One speaker recounted how some parents on low incomes needed to borrow their children’s devices during the pandemic in order to work or search for jobs. 

And digital skills are also an issue among family members. “We didn’t train the parents,” one former Secretary of State for Education said, and this was a major oversight in the rollout of IT in schools. Motivation to engage with the digital world has a lot to do with context, others pointed out. After all, we know from national surveys, including Ofcom and Lloyds Bank, that people are most comfortable learning and asking for help with digital skills from people they trust, like friends and family. And with nearly a 34 percent reported increase in homeschooling since last year, addressing the digital divide in education cannot just stop at school gates; it has to extend to parents, who need access to free, lifelong digital skills training.  

We tend to focus on the digital divide, but technology offers opportunities, too.

The expansion of digitisation and digital technologies in schools has worsened inequality for many disadvantaged students, but speakers also painted a more optimistic picture about how technology offers opportunities to make education fairer and more inclusive. Digital technologies can help to engage students with different learning styles and needs, and it can also enable students to learn in more individualised ways than would be possible in a traditional, analogue classroom. The potential to adapt course material to different ability levels offers exciting possibilities for education that meets students where they are and accommodates cognitive diversity.

In addition, digital technologies can help improve teacher productivity and enable teachers to more effectively share knowledge. Despite an acknowledgement that teachers worked harder during the pandemic in a hybrid format than perhaps ever before, several speakers mentioned the role of technology in potentially reducing teacher workload by streamlining administrative tasks, including assessments. One learning from the pandemic was that online options for some educational engagements can be equalising; online parents’ evenings allowed some working parents to engage with teachers for the first time because they could do so from home, rather than traveling to the school. 

There was also enthusiasm for innovations that could lead to what we might call the “datafied classroom” — the use of data collection and analytics to influence student outcomes. One speaker mentioned the potential of machine learning to track students’ performance in class to help identify individual learning challenges that would otherwise go unseen. Teachers could be notified by digital systems if students are struggling or bored. “This is the direction we should be moving in,” the speaker said, adding that down the line there is the potential that a young person’s progress could be constantly monitored, ultimately replacing the need for exams. “That’s not a threat; it’s an opportunity.”

Listening to this roundtable discussion, I was surprised to hear such unmitigated optimism about using datafied predictions in education, especially following the highly controversial Ofqual algorithm that predicted students’ A-level results in 2020 and demonstrated biases that devastated many students’ university prospects and prompted public protests. Any discussion of student data and algorithmic processes in education should include at least a nod toward the equality and privacy implications of such an extensive proposed regime of surveillance and assessment. The Ada Lovelace Institute last year published a blog outlining what safeguards should be in place following the Ofqual debacle, and has also published resources on algorithmic accountability that can inform public policy. Although, as this theme in the discussion highlights, there are opportunities for technology to improve classroom experiences, at this stage no technological solution should be posited without critical reflection on potential harms and downstream impacts on inequality.

We need to involve children in decisions about digital education and tools.

The final and perhaps most important theme of the roundtable was on “learning from the experts,” as one speaker put it. The experts, in this case, are children and teachers themselves. Taking a children’s rights approach to education and the digital divide means not only addressing the whole spectrum of children’s wellbeing in education (from access to devices to critical thinking skills for dealing with the digital world), but it also requires that children are consulted in the design and deployment of technologies for learning. Designing technologies with and not just for children can result in better digital consent policies and more inclusive, accessible tools that meet the needs of people with physical or cognitive disabilities, language barriers, and more.

Academic research — by danah boyd and Sonia Livingstone in particular — has long argued for including children as decision-makers in digital policy. And the ICO has issued some guidance on how to engage with children in the design of technology, recognising the importance of user-driven design. Still, the narrative around children often focuses on protection rather than empowerment. But the equitable, fair, and just digital future we want must be built with children’s rights at the core.

Even in an hour and a half-long roundtable, with many distinguished and informed speakers, there were topics left untouched that deserve a mention here. For example, the discussion did not address digital inequality in higher education (a Jisc survey reports that 63% of higher education students had problems with wifi connectivity, mobile data costs, or access to suitable devices and spaces to study during the pandemic). Nor did it engage with the role of algorithms and big data in education — which, as scholars Elinor Carmi and Simeon Yates argue, must include education about algorithms and big data. 

To me, the most notable omission was the topic of “EdTech” — technology and platforms marketed specifically for educational settings, which has seen accelerated uptake during the pandemic. The language quizzes mentioned by a speaker (and referenced above in this blog) are an example. In many ways, EdTech is revolutionising learning in positive ways, helping teachers mark work faster and collaborate with colleagues and helping to engage students with multimedia and interactive content. But the adoption of EdTech deserves more circumspection. 

Technologies for learning are often integrated into the classroom without due consideration of children’s data or privacy and the long-term implications for who has power and influence in an educational system (increasingly, power concentrates in the hands of EdTech companies, which build the technologies and capitalise on collecting and analysing student data). EdTech makes a lot of things more convenient, but the tyranny of convenience (as legal scholar and author Tim Wu put it) is that it masks the choices that tech companies are making about how we live, work, learn, and play. The much-debated and -anticipated Online Safety Bill, which holds tech companies accountable for how their products are designed and marketed for young users, does not specifically apply to EdTech. As Sonia Livingstone has written, “Schools have few mechanisms, and insufficient resources, to hold EdTech companies accountable for the processing of children’s data. EdTech providers, on the other hand, have considerable latitude to interpret the law, and to access children in real time learning to test and develop their products.” 

And this is an even bigger issue, now that the digital divide is front-and-centre in our debates about the future of education. Some children — particularly the most disadvantaged — will rely on school-issued digital devices and free digital services and platforms in school and at home. If those devices and platforms are designed to track students’ activities, those students can be perpetually surveilled, entrenching inequalities in surveillance and policing of behaviour for the most marginalised. The issues of the school-home continuum and children’s rights are clearly implicated in the rollout of EdTech in schools, so it needs to be on the agenda for tackling the digital divide.

Acknowledging the interconnectedness of the various issues that arose at the roundtable, speakers championed the goal of working together. The topic of education is a particularly personal one. Speakers regularly remarked on how they were coming to the issue not only as a professional, but also as a parent. With the will to learn the lessons of the pandemic, all that remains is to ensure that we engage with the full complexity of those lessons — the triumphs and failures, the visionary innovations and the blind spots. “All the puzzle pieces are there,” said a speaker representing the Digital Poverty Alliance, “they just need to be put together.” 

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty and APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.