Disadvantage isn’t just digital

A team from Aston University reports on research tracking the interaction of digital engagement and student disadvantage during the Covid-19 pandemic

Liz Moores is Professor and Deputy Dean in the College of Health and Life Sciences at Aston University.


Lizzy Woodfield is Policy Advisor at Aston University.


Rob Summers is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Life and Health Sciences at Aston University


Helen Higson is Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Aston University.

In the English HE sector, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to discontinue their studies and less likely to gain the highest degree classifications.

During the pandemic, the concept of “digital poverty” in education has come to the fore, with concerns that the combination of online learning and digital poverty would deepen inequalities, in particular due to inability to access online resources.

Huge efforts have been made to mitigate these possible effects by the Office for Students and universities themselves, with laptops and internet data packages being distributed.

Notwithstanding the efforts to mitigate the potential effects of digital poverty, to what extent can the effects of disadvantage still be observed on measures of student engagement?

At Aston University, we have been interrogating our learning analytics data to find out. Learning analytics systems digitally track students’ activity on a number of measures of engagement with their studies (e.g. attendance at lectures, library book checkouts) and display results back to the students and their tutors on a dashboard.

How is learning analytics supposed to help students?

Two potential advantages of learning analytics identified in the literature are improving retention and narrowing attainment gaps.

In our first learning analytics study, we showed that measures of engagement in the first three weeks of higher education predicted subsequent activity and attainment in first year undergraduate students.

In addition, and in support of other studies in this area, engagement was shown to be a much better predictor of attainment than student demographics.

This is important, firstly because it means that students can be identified by their behaviours rather than their demographic characteristics when considering potential support interventions (thereby avoiding stereotyping and stigmatisation), and secondly because it means that early engagement really matters.

So, what happened during the pandemic?

Our second study described a pre- vs. peri-pandemic study of engagement. Pre-pandemic, disadvantaged students (in the two lowest quintiles of the Index of Multiple Deprivation) showed significantly greater engagement than their peers on three of our four engagement measures: library book checkouts, live synchronous attendance at classes, and watching lecture recordings.

In contrast, during the pandemic, disadvantaged students no longer checked out more books from the library, watched lecture recordings less, but – somewhat surprisingly – showed similar attendance at synchronous learning sessions.

Thus, while the decreased watching of lecture recordings in the disadvantaged students could have been taken to be indicative of digital poverty, the similar attendance at synchronous sessions and the equalising of the physical library book checkouts across both groups, suggested that any effects of disadvantage on engagement may be more nuanced than a simplistic or all-encompassing view of digital poverty.

The concept of digital poverty risks downplaying differential effects of various methods of digital delivery as well as other important aspects of the educational experience.

Our analysis of the impact of these differences of engagement on attainment is ongoing but early analyses suggest there may have been a widening of the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers during online teaching and assessment. Whether that will have been a result only of the teaching method, rather than other detrimental effects of the pandemic, is impossible to say.

Implications for future education strategy

Many universities will now be considering their education strategies post-pandemic; in particular how they will balance online and in-person teaching.

University leaders will be mindful that the Secretary of State for Education, as well as the universities minister, have written to universities and students to express their view that face-to-face learning should remain the norm, and of the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework exercise and new regime for quality regulation.

The implications of our recent research for future education strategies are to recognise that disadvantage isn’t just digital; the broader effects of any shift to online, blended, or hybrid learning on different groups of students should be considered in order to ensure that any attainment gaps are not widened.

It may be worth considering in more detail exactly how any teaching which is online is offered. It would appear that students may appreciate – and be more likely to engage with – synchronous and interactive sessions over recorded lectures.

Universities should consider the importance and accessibility of the wider support they offer (including library services, student services, careers services, and interactions with staff and peers) and how this accessibility may change for different groups with any shift in mode of learning.

We have an opportunity to change the way we deliver education but should do so with care, evaluation, and caution to ensure that developments improve students’ ability to engage in an equitable fashion.

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