To learn online, you need a stable internet connection and an internet-enabled device such as laptops or smartphones. However, when the March 2020 lockdown hit in the UK and universities and schools moved online, 11% of households did not have access to the internet, according to the Office of Communications (OFCOM). One year later and that number was down to 6%.
A new OFCOM report on Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes published on the 28th of April states that “The pandemic had been the catalyst for a step-change in digital skills…” but warned that 1.5 million UK homes still do not have access to the internet. The research showed that 10% of users access the internet via a smartphone only, and 20% of children did not have constant access to a device for online learning during the lockdowns.
The recent Office for Students guidance paper found that around 30% of university students surveyed lacked good internet access, and 30% lacked a suitable study space. If the 30% from the survey translates to the whole 2.38 million UK student population, that is roughly 300,000 students with digital access issues.
During a regular year, this would have been covered by on-campus facilities. The University I work at provides computers in study spaces across its campuses, includes a computer finder tool in the student app, and high-speed internet in all its accommodation. But with social distancing and full lockdowns, these facilities were in limited supply, halls become the primary social spaces as external spaces were forced to close, and many students found themselves returning home to shared devices, bandwidth, and workspaces with parents and siblings.
The Gravity assist paper recommends that university providers make digital access a priority:
- Appropriate hardware for students to access course content with parity of experience.
- Appropriate software for students to access course content
- Robust technical infrastructure that works seamlessly and repaired promptly
- Reliable access to the internet with sufficient bandwidth
- A trained teacher or instructor equipt to deliver high-quality digital learning and teaching
- An appropriate study place that is quiet and consistently avalible
Most universities have adapted to the challenge, providing year-long laptop loans, broadband dongles, and technical support to those students that need it. Academics have rapidly upskilled with digital teaching practices and redesigning courses to adapt to the changing access to students. Software vendors like Microsoft and Virtual Learning Environment vendors like D2L have adapted too, rapidly releasing new tools and dramatically increasing infrastructure to handle the shift to online.
Many of these fixes were put in place as short-term solutions, and universities, academics, and tech companies must now find long-term solutions that do not disadvantage this 30% of students. The Office for students suggests that institutions start to engage with students individually before their courses start. Universities should offer solutions where needed, such as loaning laptops, financial support, and creative study space solutions, in the same way other additional needs are currently handled.
Flexible learning should hold an advantage for students from the most deprived areas of the UK, allowing them to study around their many additional commitments caring responsibilities, part-time work, and commutes. Significant progress has been made over the last twelve months to provide equal access to higher education; we need to put the same level of planning into maintaining digital access for all.