Collaboration is key to eliminating data poverty and levelling-up opportunities for disadvantaged learners
While data and digital poverty have been around for as long as the internet, it’s taken a pandemic to expose this unnecessary inequity to a wider audience.
Through lockdowns, teachers, lecturers, education leaders, parents and learners were talking about it; so, the media talked about it and then, quite rightly, ministers took notice.
The Government tackled digital poverty by providing devices for school pupils via the temporary ‘Get help with technology’ scheme and Jisc added its voice to others that successfully argued that further education (FE) college learners should also be eligible.
Disadvantaged higher education (HE) students, however, were excluded from the scheme. Through an open letter to the then secretary of state for education, Jisc and partners at GuildHE and Universities UK tried – and failed – to instigate a rethink.
Many of these HE students had to rely on university hardship funds, which came under immense pressure during the pandemic. The plight of HE and FE learners, as well as that of staff at colleges and universities, was evidenced in our annual digital experience insights (DEI) surveys.
Conducted between October 2020 and April 2021, surveys of 39,000 HE and almost 24,000 FE students found significant numbers encountered several problems that impacted their ability to learn online: 16% of FE and 24% of HE respondents cited mobile data costs as a concern.
Poor Wi-Fi connection was more of an issue, with 49% of FE learners and 63% of university students citing this as a barrier, while some didn’t have access to a suitable device (14% of FE and 15% of HE).
Teachers suffered too: 14% in FE and 12% working in HE struggled to afford the data that enabled them to work from home and half of all teachers reported poor Wi-Fi connections.
On behalf of these disadvantaged staff and students at our member organisations (colleges and universities) we have tackled telecoms companies, local authorities and the government.
In April 2020, Jisc and other sector organisations wrote to the then culture secretary and Ofcom urging them to work with telecoms providers to make all relevant online education sites free to access for UK FE and HE students.
In May 2021, Jisc wrote to the Local Government Association, urging English authorities to provide free internet access to students in public spaces via our eduroam connectivity service, which we will enable for free.
The offer applies to councils that are already using Jisc’s govroam public sector roaming service. As the name suggests, eduroam was developed for the education sector and now connects millions of students and staff when on campus at universities and colleges nationwide.
If eduroam were available in thousands of libraries, community centres and public buildings, it would massively extend access to ‘zero touch’ internet connectivity for students and education sector staff who, for whatever reason, aren’t on campus.
This could benefit many people who don’t have an internet connection at home, whose broadband connection is poor, and those who can’t afford data costs required to work or study effectively at home. It also gives greater choice in terms of when and where to study or work. It’s a no-brainer.
So far, seven out of a possible 71 councils have taken up the offer; it's a step in the right direction and we’ll keep pushing at this door.
Fortunately, we have another weapon in the arsenal: or to be more precise, a little box of tricks that’s in development. edubox is a portable technology that allows access to eduroam in areas where there is only cellular connectivity.
One edubox placed in a building and connected to the existing local network can deliver eduroam to up to 100 users. The box can also be reprofiled to work with the govroam network in a similar fashion.
We are now testing to see whether the Jisc-run national research and education network, Janet, can be brought into buildings via the edubox technology.
The University of Gloucestershire used edubox while it refurbished a major city centre site. The site had no running water, variable power and no network, but the box enabled people from the university who were working on site to connect to the internet as they would do on campus – without the need for separate log-in credentials.
We don’t have all the answers though, and we can’t solve the problems alone.
Issues around digital and data poverty highlighted here have been present for years, as evidenced in our pre-pandemic DEI surveys. But now, as we emerge from COVID-19 into a world where blended learning is – or will become – the norm, the sector, the government and telecoms companies must work together to eliminate data poverty.
Find out more
- Heidi Fraser-Krauss is a member of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on data poverty. This blog is part of a 'state-of-the-nation' report published today by the APPG
- Teaching staff digital experience insights survey 2020/21 UK further education (FE) survey findings (pdf)
About the author
I joined Jisc as chief executive officer in September 2021. My key priority is to ensure Jisc stays innovative and focused on the needs of students, educators and researchers in what will be a turbulent but, I am sure, productive time ahead.