Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Bridging The Digital Divide For Our Children

Covid-19 built walls between disadvantaged kids & education. Let’s knock them down and replace them with bridges to close the digital divide

Some 300 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton said: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

Since then, in their commentary on social issues, many others have turned to the stark contrast between walls and bridges. Walls are a captivating and divisive theme — the Berlin Wall, the US-Mexico border wall, even Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland!

But usually, as with Pope Francis’ 2019 “build bridges, not walls” reference to the plight of refugees, we’re looking at a metaphorical use.

When I think about Covid-19 at its worst, I see metaphorical walls everywhere. We erected them between ourselves and the virus — they took the shape of masks, hand sanitiser, self-isolation, shielding, social distancing, remote working, and home-schooling. And quite rightly, they kept us safe. And some of them are still keeping us safe.

I see metaphorical bridges too — neighbours rallied together to ensure our vulnerable had well-stocked fridges, co-workers connected over Zoom, and governments provided underprivileged kids technology to learn from home.

During lockdowns for the bulk of parents, especially working parents, it was hardly a cinch having their brood around the house 24/7. For low-income families, this was especially challenging, for they simply couldn’t afford the right equipment for their kids to access learning resources remotely.

This dropped a needless wall between those children and a good-quality education, one that sits under “the digital divide” umbrella alongside limited, or no, access to the internet.

I touched on this latter issue in a previous blog post, with specific reference to the Scottish Government’s efforts to bridge the digital divide by improving Wi-Fi coverage across the country.

EY defines the problem of the digital divide as:

“The gap between those individuals with and without access to computers and internet connection, [which] became more apparent at the onset of Covid-19 with the technology requirements of remote online learning.”

Research conducted by Lloyd’s Bank indicates that approximately 1 million families across the UK don’t have good access to the internet or an internet-connected device at home, 700,000 of whom are children who don’t have the skills or technology they need to complete their schoolwork.

These figures have long troubled teaching unions across the UK, who encourage government intervention. Pre-Covid, the Department for Education (DfE) had been working to supply over 200,000 laptops to poorer kids in England, in addition to Wi-Fi access. During Covid, these same teaching unions have expressed heightened concerns over increasing digital exclusion, leading to further pressure on the DfE.

Westminster responded by providing more than 500,000 laptops to deprived pupils across England, stating that it sought to “ensure as many children as possible benefit despite increased global demand for devices.” The Government appeared committed to preventing any child’s education suffering due to the global crisis.

Holyrood followed suit, with the provision of 25,000 laptops to disadvantaged young people and kids — although it faced criticism for taking too long to distribute the laptops bought under the £9 million scheme.

The DfE struggled to meet rising demand in this respect — particularly in the short-term. Consequently, poorer kids faced real inequity, and some were even forced to use smartphones to complete schoolwork.

But did this really come as a surprise? Did it really “beggar belief” like some educators suggest? I’d argue it didn’t. As much as we’d like to think so, the State’s coffers aren’t bottomless, and we hadn’t solved the problem pre-Covid let alone in these logistically challenged times.

In truth, we need a supplementary plan. Private and voluntary sectors, as well as we the people must pull together to boost growing public sector efforts and “make a difference.”

My choice of words here is no accident, because Make a Difference so happens to be the name of the BBC’s campaign to raise awareness of the digital divide. That campaign also highlights how the divide is affecting UK children, as well as the organisations doing something about it.

Many companies and charities have set up schemes to collect old devices, refurbish them (in some cases), and then quickly distribute them to schools. So, if you have an unused laptop or tablet lying around the house, what are you waiting for? Get yourself over to Make a Difference, where you’ll find links to some of the donation schemes currently running across the UK.

Of course, Covid’s widening of the digital divide wasn’t a plight unique to the UK. Quite the opposite. For that reason, donation and support schemes have been running in countries all over the world.

Even the United States has challenges, where EY is acting to reduce the gap “now, next, and beyond.” EY US worked with non-profit organisations throughout the country to deliver solutions that would increase broadband connectivity, distribute hardware and digital services, and connect students with virtual mentoring to build digital literacy and help them navigate the virtual world.”

Another country where EY has helped support kids from low-income families to learn remotely is Slovenia. Back in April, realising “the most important thing during the Covid-19 pandemic is to strengthen our communicates,” EY Slovenia donated 100 laptops. The was done through the EY Ripples programme, which aims to “have a positive effect on the lives of one billion people by 2030.”

With donations made through various private and voluntary sector schemes in the UK and elsewhere, we will burst through walls and replace them with bridges. And we’ll do so until the unnecessary and unjust digital divide eventually disappears, making sure the vulnerable among us receive the education they deserve.

As Pope Francis says, “those who build bridges go forward.” And forward, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is the only way we should be going!

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Catriona Campbell

Catriona Campbell

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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