The shift to distance and blended learning catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many challenges and inequities in our current education system. As CEO of NetSupport, an education technology company providing solutions to help monitor and manage technology usage, support teachers and protect students, I often consider my company and the whole of industry have a responsibility to help our school partners meet these challenges.
One such challenge that has been at the forefront of my mind recently is digital poverty, the inability to fully interact with the online world – when, where and how an individual needs to.
In January, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul Finnis, CEO of The Learning Foundation & Digital Poverty Alliance, on NetSupport Radio. Our conversation highlighted the nuanced definition of digital poverty and how edtech companies can help address it.
When people hear the term digital poverty, they usually think it refers to access to devices. And that’s okay but, as Paul pointed out in our interview, incomplete definition. The digital divide is not just access to digital devices, but also connectivity to the online world, the skills to navigate it, and knowledge of how best to use those skills.
For example, although a student may have access to a shared family computer at home, the student may not have the digital literacy skills necessary to find and evaluate the online sources the student needs to complete their work. Or maybe their bandwidth is insufficient to support the technology tools that make it easier for them to learn. And on top of that, the student has siblings who also have to use the computer for school at the same time. These barriers to learning all relate to the larger social problem of digital poverty.
While access to digital devices as well as the development of digital skills, such as how to manage one’s digital footprint and stay safe online, are necessary in our digital world, there are also significant barriers to acquisition. by students and reducing the digital divide. . Because digital poverty is a multi-faceted issue, a coordinated approach between schools, governing bodies, and edtech companies may be needed to break down these barriers and bridge the digital divide.
On the government side, one can start by viewing digital connectivity as an essential utility. Governments can consider grants or funds to support connectivity for those who cannot afford high-speed Internet access.
On the school side, consider looking for solutions agnostic when selecting tools and services for teaching and learning. This means solutions that can be used on the widest range of devices and operating systems possible. Schools can also provide print or physical alternatives to digital resources so that student learning is not limited by their digital access. Finally, for younger learners, parental competence in technology also plays a role in digital poverty. One way to engage parents is through after-school workshops that give them access to devices and help them develop their digital skills.
Edtech companies can support the efforts of governments and schools by creating solutions that have the maximum effect on the maximum number of learners. This means providing solutions that are as accessible as possible: they can run on all devices and operating systems and require minimal bandwidth and data. The resources and artifacts in these tools that can be shared offline also minimize the likelihood of a child not being able to engage with school. Finally, digital safety is an important part of using digital: combine teaching technology with tools and practices that keep students safe online.
Addressing digital poverty and bridging the digital divide requires coordinated efforts between schools, governing bodies and edtech companies. Governments in particular need to start thinking about digital connectivity the same way they think about electricity, water and food – with much of our educational journey now online, connectivity is now a basic need for every child. With that, the next step in meeting this challenge will be to keep the learner at the forefront of everything we do.