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'If all learning was online, many learners would be seriously disadvantaged’

Jatinder SharmaDavid Turner

Digital and data poverty is harming the chances of some of the most vulnerable learners in further education. Walsall College’s Jatinder Sharma, principal and chief executive, and David Turner, assistant principal – quality and HE, share how the digital divide is impacting their learners and the steps they are taking to help.

Like many colleges, we managed to take much of our teaching online through lockdown, but we’ve seen firsthand that it doesn’t work for all learners. Until fair access to devices and connectivity is properly addressed, there will be a digital divide – and it’s harming some of our learners much more than others.

Although digital and data poverty can affect anyone, regardless of race, we’ve seen a worrying bias. Around 35% of our learners are from BAME communities – which reflects the region well. At any one point during March-May around 80% of our learners from all backgrounds were engaged, which is pretty good.

Around half of these learners were only able to access materials on their phones, which is not ideal, but they had regular interactions with teachers every week. But when we looked closer at the data, of that 20% of learners who weren’t engaged, just over half were from BAME communities. It’s clear that digital poverty is particularly impacting learners from BAME backgrounds.

There just aren’t enough laptops for everyone

What do we mean by digital poverty? A key issue is lack of access to devices.

According to a recent report from the Association of Colleges (AoC), as many as 100,000 students may be missing out on learning because they don’t have a suitable device to learn on or home access to the internet.

We have been able to purchase 370 devices, but there just aren’t enough laptops for everyone. There is a funding mechanism through local councils to help with digital kit, but there are so many hoops to jump through that only two of our students ended up with referrals to get a laptop, when we need around 700. However, the 370 which we were able to purchase meant that many more of our students were able to access online learning.

We have students who are trying to learn via mobile phones, which isn’t conducive to a good learning experience. There are also challenges where students don’t have access to a quiet, dedicated study space – perhaps sharing a room and/or devices with multiple family members. This has become more of an issue now that a large proportion of the student body are having to learn from home.

Connectivity and 'data poverty'

There is also an issue with connectivity – ‘data poverty’. Even if a student can access some learning on their phone, for example, there is no guarantee that they will have the bandwidth needed to interact as they need to. 

We use various platforms, including Microsoft Teams, and there have been many instances where learners haven’t been able to have their cameras on due to poor connectivity, or dropping off part way through lessons, etc. This is one of the reasons why we’ve converted our college atrium and built a series of self-study booths, where learners can come in and safely study with reliable connectivity.

Despite the huge challenges, we’ve managed to achieve some positives from the situation. For instance, our special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) team have done a lot of online training with parents and carers. The training helps parents and carers to support adults and young people with SEND to access learning, and it has been working really well. The team has also started a drop-in centre and workshops, so if there are specific questions or concerns, there is someone there to guide them. We’re considering rolling this out to the rest of our learner cohort.

Cycles of poverty

Walsall is located within the urban sprawl of the Midlands, surrounded by concrete.

It is the thirteenth most deprived borough in the UK, it’s incredibly densely populated, and deprivation is evident across all sorts of communities, affecting many of our learners.

We’ve seen an outsized impact on our most vulnerable people. Many of our learners are vulnerable adults who are gaining literacy, numeracy and digital skills, and due to the added financial pressures of COVID-19 and so on, a lot of them just aren’t coming to college because they have to use that time to find a job and put food on the table. But this doesn't only affect vulnerable adults.

When learners become disengaged, they are at a much higher risk of dropping out, and with the current state of the job market many will struggle to find employment. This leads to a cycle of poverty.

Ultimately, different levels of access among learners impacts the way in which we’re able to deliver the curriculum.  If all learners had access to laptops and availability of reliable internet connectivity at an effective price, as well as dedicated space in which to study, most of the staff would be happy to switch to online, at least for theory classes. But our teachers know their students exceptionally well, and they know that if the college was to make the decision to take everything online, it would seriously disadvantage a lot of our learners.

There is a careful balance between trying to deliver learning safely and ensuring that everyone has equal access to that learning.

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