The shift to remote and hybrid learning catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many challenges and inequities in our current education system. As the CEO of NetSupport, an educational technology company with solutions to help monitor and manage the use of technology, support teachers and protect students, I often consider my company and the broader industry’s responsibility to support our school partners in addressing these challenges.
One such challenge that has recently been at the forefront of my mind is digital poverty, the inability to interact fully with the online world — when, where and how an individual needs.
In January, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul Finnis, CEO of Learning Foundation & Digital Poverty Alliance, on NetSupport Radio. Our conversation highlighted the nuanced definition of digital poverty and how edtech companies can help to address this issue.
When people hear the term digital poverty, they typically think it refers to access to devices. And this is correct but, as Paul pointed out in our interview, incomplete definition. The digital divide is not simply access to digital devices, but it’s also connectivity to the online world, the skills needed to navigate it, and the knowledge of how to make the best use of these skills.
For example, while a student may have access to a shared family computer at home, the student may not have the digital literacy skills required to find and evaluate the online sources the student needs to complete their work. Or, perhaps their bandwidth is insufficient to support the technology tools that facilitate their learning. And on top of that, the student has siblings who also need to use the computer for school at the same time. These barriers to learning all fall under the broader social issue 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 while online, are necessary in our digitally enabled world, there are also significant barriers to students acquiring them and closing the digital divide. Because digital poverty is a multifaceted issue, it may take a coordinated approach between schools, governing bodies and edtech companies to break down these barriers and decrease the digital divide.
On the government side, we can start by considering digital connectivity as an essential utility. Governments may consider subsidies or funds to support connectivity for those who cannot afford high-speed internet access.
On the schools’ side, consider looking for agnostic solutions when selecting tools and services for teaching and learning. This means solutions that can be used on the broadest range of devices and operating systems as possible. Schools can also provide printed or physical alternatives to digital resources so that students’ learning is not limited by their digital access. Finally, for the youngest learners, parental competence with technology also factors into digital poverty. One way to engage parents is to run after-school workshops that give them access to devices and help them develop their digital skills.
Edtech companies can support the efforts of both 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 be run on all devices and operating systems and require minimal bandwidth and data. Resources and artifacts from these tools that can be shared offline also minimize the likelihood of a child not being able to engage in school. Finally, digital safety is an important part of digital use: pair instruction technology with tools and practices that keep students safe online.
Addressing digital poverty and decreasing the digital divide necessitates coordinated efforts between schools, governing bodies and edtech companies. Governments in particular need to start thinking of digital connectivity the same way they do electricity, water and food — with the advent of so much of our educational journey being online, connectivity is now a basic need for any child. With that, the next step in confronting this challenge will be keeping the learner at the forefront of everything we do.