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Home learning ‘could widen Australia’s digital divide’


Pupils from low-income backgrounds are more likely to encounter technology-related issues, says report

A reliance on home learning during the Covid-19 crisis risks long-term disengagement from education among children from low-income families and will further entrench digital inequalities in Australian schools, a group of West Australia education academics has said.

In a report to the federal Department of Education, the Curtin University group raises concerns about the impact of school closures during the pandemic on the most vulnerable 20 per cent of the country’s young people. These include those experiencing poverty, unstable family relations and domestic violence.

“For many vulnerable children, school is not simply about cognitive engagement but also about behavioural and emotional engagement as well as connectedness,” the report says.

“For children in care, or in low-income households, or moving between parents, schools may provide the only constant in their lives and without the presence of routine and the essential pastoral ‘care’ support that a school provides, students may turn away from learning permanently.”

The report was written by public health research fellow Catherine Drane, developmental psychologist Lynette Vernon and Sarah O’Shea, director of the Perth-based university’s national centre for student equity in higher education.

It suggests that partial closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic would allow vulnerable pupils to attend and offer a sanctuary “for those who desperately need a regulated and secure environment”.

The report also says many lower-income households use mobile phone plans to connect to the internet, which means children cannot access online learning resources.

“Mobile-only plans typically have lower download limits and exceeding these limits results in additional costs,” it says.

“This is a multifaceted issue that not only relates to the ownership of hardware (i.e. laptops, computers) but also relates to: internet access, which may be limited; cost, placing further burden on households already under financial strain; or poor connectivity. Again, it is those students from more financially disadvantaged backgrounds that are more likely to encounter technology-related issues with resulting impacts for online learning from home.”

The report also suggests that there are misconceptions about the level of technology proficiency among school pupils and their ability to manage complex educational online resources.

“While young people are often assumed to be digitally ‘savvy’, their use of technology is generally low-level and predominantly for entertainment and personal use, rather than for learning,” it says.

“Despite the emergence of debates around the expertise of the ‘net generation’ or young ‘digital natives’, who have grown up with technology enmeshed within their daily lives, researchers have recognised that the concept of a digital native is far from commonplace.”