Yesterday afternoon, I spent a productive hour with a panel of policy-makers and experts, discussing ‘Levelling up through digital’ and exploring how technology can help bridge the geographical and socio-economic divide.
Joining me in this virtual debate were digital infrastructure minister, Matt Warman, Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh, Helen Milner of the social change charity Good Things Foundation, and Joanna Swash from Moneypenny, a provider of telephone and web-based communications to businesses.
The session was hosted by the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR) and chaired by Conservative peer Baroness Neville-Rolfe. I was pleased to hear broad consensus across the panel around one strong, central message: affordable digital inclusion and 'levelling up’ are interconnected. As I put it, the future is exciting - if we can just get the basics right.
Education for all
Technology plays a key role in the government’s ‘levelling up' agenda, so this is a particularly important time for the education and technology sectors, businesses, and policy-makers to come together, as we did yesterday – and as Jisc continues to do with partners including Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, Guild HE and others.
Recent months have been tough for the UK education sector, but through uncertainty, new ideas are emerging, and I expect we’ll carry many of those forward for the benefit of our teaching and learning communities. As we look to a technology-powered future, let’s support everyone across society, and work to bridge the divides that COVID-19 lockdowns have laid bare.
At Jisc, we’ve learned a huge amount as we’ve supported delivery of vital education services through the pandemic. One key learning from our recent cross-sector projects and collaborations, spanning both further education (FE) and higher education (HE), is: the future of post-16 education is blended; there is no going back to ‘in-person only’.
Further, for all the challenges COVID-19 has wrought, it has accelerated some positive changes. For example, for the first time, disabled students have had equal access to teaching, with technology improving the accessibility of learning materials, and online delivery mitigating physical challenges many faced on campus. We must embrace and extend this parity – and that means accepting that we can’t simply automate what we’ve done in the past, we need to rethink education delivery from the perspective of inclusion.
Bridging the digital divide
Connectivity is vital, and we’ve seen the devastating impact of the digital divide over the past year. This isn’t simply about learners who don't have access to devices; many have struggled to cover the costs of the mobile phone data they need to complete their coursework remotely, a number have found themselves disadvantaged by unreliable wifi in their geographical location, and some tussle with housemates and family members over bandwidth.
While the Get Help with Tech scheme was an effective intervention in the provision of devices, it took eight months to get up and running, it focuses solely on the FE sector - and it doesn’t address issues of connectivity and data costs. As McDonagh said yesterday, “The technological age is here to stay. Without support, those on the wrong side of the digital divide will simply be left behind.”
Statistics on the number of children on Free School Meals are not a reliable measure of digital poverty. In a recent report from the Association of Colleges, 36% of colleges said they still did not have sufficient devices for students to study online, and 32% said more than 300 of their students have inadequate internet access at home. Students need both quality education and cost-effective connection, yet Jisc’s Student Digital Insights survey found that 62% of students experience poor wifi connection and 22% struggle with mobile data costs.
As Labour MP Darren Jones’ internet access bill highlights, we need to look at the broader picture if we are to truly ‘level up’. Perhaps part of the solution is a cheap, unlimited data mobile tariff for HE students and adult learners, priced at around £5 or £10 a month. This would help a vast number of students, and could be implemented relatively quickly.
‘A better normal’
As the government moves towards its next edtech strategy, I hope standards in accessibility and a greater availability of devices will be tackled with a long-term approach, ensuring connectivity is at the heart of our commitments for the future. This would build on the prominence of digital in the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, in the Post-16 Education bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, and in the recent announcement for a Levelling Up White Paper.
We might even go further. Asked yesterday if connectivity should be a utility, Milner said: “It should be better than a utility, it should be in your house when you move in, it should be in hospitals and hostels... Our new 'normal' has to be a better normal.” I echo that. In 2021, equitable digital connectivity is a basic human right, and it isn't up to universities and colleges to deliver that.
We have this chance to solve challenges around digital and data poverty. This is why, at Jisc, we hope to support local government authorities, mobile networks, and internet service providers to extend eduroam wifi access to students via the Jisc-delivered Janet network. That would mean learners could get online, for free, from locations beyond their place of study. We know this is needed: 54% of HE learners surveyed in Jisc’s digital insights survey said they feel disadvantaged in their learning due to insufficient access to digital equipment, software, or broadband/connectivity. We need long-term solutions to get this right for all, supporting true lifelong learning and reaching students of all ages, backgrounds, circumstances, and modes of study.
A technology-powered future
We also need to upskill, reskill and innovate for the future. As Matt Warman yesterday reflected, “the assumption in every previous industrial revolution has been that it will destroy jobs. In reality, what has happened is far more jobs have been created than have been destroyed. It's true that there are far fewer blacksmiths and chimney sweeps around now than there used to be - but there isn't an army of unemployed blacksmiths and chimney sweeps. Reskilling is absolutely crucial.”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) must be part of this conversation, so Jisc is collaborating with innovative colleges and universities, start-ups, and technology companies to launch a new National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education. AI is already being used in education, so let’s build on the successes highlighted in Jisc’s state-of-the-nation report - such as Bolton College’s Ada chatbot, and Basingstoke College of Technology’s use of CENTURY Tech’s adaptive learning system. Given long-term investment and partnerships, I believe our National Centre could proliferate real transformation in the UK, unleashing the power of data, and harnessing new technology to support diverse learners, reduce admin for teaching staff, and elevate the UK as a global leader in the field.
Increasing the digital skills of staff and students is also crucial in our mission to ‘level up’. In Jisc’s digital experience insights ‘pulse survey’, taken between October and December 2020, only 61% of learners in further education (FE) and 55% of learners HE said they were offered support or training to develop digital capabilities around learning online. In our survey of 2,677 members of university teaching staff, published in November, only 29% agree their organisation provides guidance about the digital skills they needed in their job. We can do better.
I am ambitious for the future, and I believe the rapid shift to digital we’ve seen through the COVID-19 pandemic offers a springboard for digital transformation. Making fundamental change to benefit both staff and learners will require collective input. Let’s work together to shape and share a visionary learner experience with a digital-first approach that truly delivers for all.