A deep digital divide


17 December 2020

Lockdown sent schools scrambling. Home offices were set up. Lesson plans were shelved and new programs hastily written.

And for educators at many schools, there was another task: making sure that every student could access their education – either online, or at least from home.

For some teachers that meant sourcing laptops and internet dongles so students without home internet access had a connection and a device to work on. For others, it meant a return to pen-and-paper lessons and travelling to homes to drop off photocopied work packs, because the task of equipping all students with laptops was simply too great.

COVID-19 brought into stark light a truth that governments have spent the best part of two decades trying to ignore – there is a deep digital divide in our schools, and it is getting wider.

Lack of access to the tools that so many of us take for granted has long disadvantaged tens of thousands of students. But when schools switched to remote learning it became critical.

Now, armed with new figures that show the extent of the problem, the AEU is calling for the federal government to act, by drawing up funded plans to ensure every child has the tools they need to learn – and the training to use them.

A report by researcher Barbara Preston, commissioned by the union, takes a deep dive through published census and other data to reveal that 125,000 students in Australian public schools had no home internet access at the time of the last census, 2016.

As recently as 2019, four million Australians had only mobile internet access, according to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index. For students without a space of their own at home to work uninterrupted, the need to scrap for a connection on a phone with a limited data plan (which might also be required by a parent for work or job-hunting) is an added burden.

“COVID-19 hasn’t created the digital divide – it’s exposed the deep inequality in digital inclusion that exists for our students,” says AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe.

“That has been exacerbated by the social disadvantage faced by students in rural and remote locations, students living in poverty, and students who live in insecure housing or in unstable households.”

The rollout of the National Broadband Network, and the interventions of schools and state governments during the COVID lockdowns, have connected many students. But, Preston says, that is not enough.

“Digital inclusion requires ‘digital ability’ as well as access to affordable and appropriate hardware and software. Digital ability requires skills, knowledge, confidence and a sense of control when using information technology and the internet.

“That takes resources and time to develop, and (without it) there cannot be successful, digitally based learning away from school, whether it is remote learning, homework or independent study.

Preston says students and their parents and carers who have not had extensive internet experience have been delayed in developing digital skills and confidence. “They are very disadvantaged relative to their peers who have had broadband internet at home for some time.

“The more that digital work becomes the norm, even if not formally required by schools, the more those without digital inclusion at home are disadvantaged.”

Poverty and family instability are key factors in the digital divide. Among families in the bottom third of incomes, 9 per cent of public school students had no home internet, compared to 1 per cent in the highest third. For the 19 per cent who moved home in the past year, the figure rose to 11 per cent.

These disadvantages inevitably fall most heavily on students in the government school sector. The proportion of state school students without internet access – 5 per cent – is more than double that of students in the Catholic and independent sectors

Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, 21 per cent have no access at home, rising to an alarming 45 per cent in the Northern Territory.

Preston’s research indicates the scale of the problem, but detailed data to inform action remains lacking. What is needed is school-by-school data to identify which students are falling through the cracks and what intervention is needed to create something approaching a level playing field.

The AEU is calling for a “digital equity audit” to identify the hardware, software, training and development required to give schools and educators the capacity to provide extra learning support for students.

So far, the federal government has shown little interest in addressing the issue. Loans to students of laptops and dongles by states and territories such as Victoria and New South Wales, provide a stop-gap measure.

“There is a strong role for the Commonwealth to play here and provide recurrent funding for schools,” Haythorpe says.

“It all requires money. But for us this is about inequality at every level.

Getting connected

When Thomas’s Sydney-based primary/secondary school switched to home learning, his mother Merrily says things got tricky. “The library wasn’t open – and you couldn’t exactly sit around in a shopping centre,” she says.

The family was already struggling financially when the pandemic hit and Merrily is a full-time carer for her own mother. Their experience highlights how the digital divide is about more than just having the right equipment.

“We have a laptop,” she says. “I saved and saved and went without so he could have it. But the data plans are expensive. Trying to fund Wi-Fi for him was almost impossible.”

Merrily says she also found it difficult to help Thomas with his schoolwork because her own education was limited.

“I wanted Thomas to have a good education because I ended up having to drop out of school. COVID-19 has made it very hard
for students.”

Help came through children’s charity The Smith Family which, through sponsorship, has helped Thomas get connected to the internet and provided other support.

The Smith Family reports that around one quarter of the 50,000 children sponsored through its Learning for Life program have no internet access at home.

Nic Barnard

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Summer 2020