Education, widening participation and the digital divide

For Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin, technology is not a simple fix for complex societal needs, and does not benefit participation by itself.

Alex Blower is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth


Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum at Lancaster University

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening higher education participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The Covid-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

A magic thing

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise of a “thing”. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned “fake it till you make it” meritocratic ideal. For the last forty years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an “oven ready” answer can be seen in the digital divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things? –

What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on… – Laptops for everyone!

Well (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitate a learning gain. As professionals working to widen participation, we need to challenge these oven ready answers. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the Connecting Kids project during the first wave of Covid-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years eight and nine was hovering at about 30 per cent of students engaging daily, and 45 per cent weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 unused sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed “user error” in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the thing wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward six months and online engagement is currently at 92 per cent. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education of working-class young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people, we must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and oven ready “things”. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into higher education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Reshaping university outreach

This leaves us with something of a conundrum. As HE professionals, what on earth can we do about all of that? Is it our place to address an issue so vast, and so intimately tied to the turning cogs of government policy and societal inequality?

Well, if recent conversations pertaining to higher education’s civic purpose are anything to go by, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And we need to do it better. Within our mad scramble to do something to support young learners during the first, second, and now third national lockdown, our “thing” has become online workshops.

For many of us the ramifications of the digital divide have been acknowledged, but shied away from in work to widen participation. We’ve kept doing what we’ve done always done, but switched to a model of online delivery which restricts who has the ability to access the content. Can we honestly say, given the disparity in digital participation amongst the most and least affluent groups, that this is the right answer to the question?

Rather than an online workshop series about choosing universities, would our time and resource be better spent by organising student ambassadors from computing subjects to staff a free phone helpline supporting young people in the community to get online? Could we distribute workbooks with local newspapers? Could, as they did at Lancaster, we work in partnership with other local and national organisations to offer more holistic support, support which ensures that as many students are able to participate in education digitally as possible?

For us, the answer is yes. Yes we should. And we can start by meaningfully engaging with the communities our universities serve. By taking the time to properly listen and understand the questions before working with those communities to provide an answer.

This blog was first published at SRHE here.

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