Discovering the real depths of digital poverty – a major learning from the pandemic

digital student

Understanding both the importance and the various challenges relating to ensuring good digital access has been one of the major lessons of the pandemic. Covid made us realise the complexities of digital poverty and insufficient digital access and how this impacted the learning experience of our most disadvantaged students. It also made us realise that even students who might not see themselves as disadvantaged sometimes were when it came to having sufficient digital access. Despite the challenges the sector was faced with, it’s clear that this has triggered a range of responses from which a great deal of positive action has happened and is becoming embedded.

I have spent over 25 years steeped in how best to support and encourage students as they transform their lives through higher education. I have never previously witnessed the speed of change I have seen recently, both on the student and staff sides (professional service as well as academic). There is nothing like a crisis to fast track action – whether wanted or not. Our challenge now is to understand and embed the learning to ensure that all students, but especially those who are disadvantaged, are given the very best chance of success in these uniquely challenging times.

Range of issues that impacted students

One of the huge issues to emerge was the range of ways in which students suffered digital disadvantage – this just hadn’t been on the radar pre covid despite the long running shift to greater time working digitally. Jemma Strong is the JS Group Engagement Partner on the Teesside University Advance scheme, some of you will have seen and heard her talk about this at the AMOSSHE conference. She knows her student body well and was curious to understand better what was happening in the eye of the storm. The University, having immediately reacted to address digital poverty, had understood that many students would not have internet access at home. Jemma became aware that things were a lot more complicated than this, immediately rang 63 of her students and over time spoke to nearly 100. She learned things that Teesside Uni simply hadn’t been aware of at that point. Many students had no broadband at home. Those that did found there was insufficient bandwidth for the sudden change of need for them or for the whole household.  There was nowhere quiet to work and their ability to connect to the new way of online learning was a major barrier. Previously they had been very creative and had made full use of university library facilities, one even described how they sat in McDonalds using their free Wi-Fi. Others described how they were still going out to work and needed to be able to access the internet while travelling as well as the need to keep in touch with family and friends for mental health and wellbeing. Students from overseas were struggling to keep in touch with friends and family and even if they could afford a UK phone to help, couldn’t get hold of one because of supply shortages. In those first weeks of lockdown the WP students were in particular trouble. The libraries (and the McDonalds) were closed. They were disproportionately disadvantaged by poor digital access. They were scrambling to cope and buying data with their bursaries was one way of solving their problem, even for overseas students where we provided data covering over 130 international countries. Jemma spotted it early and helped address the problem but, of course, it turned out to be a sector wide issue.

OfS work on digital access and poverty

As we know the respective national funding and regulatory bodies paid great attention to the issue of the pivot to online learning and to digital poverty. All of them gave additional funding to HEIs to support students suffering from digital poverty and related hardship – some in more useful forms than others (now there’s a subject for a separate thoughtpiece!). The Office for Students carried out a survey about student experience during the first lockdown and in September 2020 published the outcomes: 71% of students reported a lack of access to a quiet space to work with 22% ‘severely’ impacted and 18% said they were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet. As a consequence of these and other findings a major review of digital learning was commissioned by Sir Michael Barber.

His “Gravity Assist: Propelling Higher Education Towards a Brighter Future” report published in February 2021 was quite fascinating and captured the learning to date (almost a year by then) from the pivot to online teaching. It covered a whole range of issues and areas but quite rightly started with the fundamental issue of the need to ensure that all students had digital access and that digital poverty was properly addressed. The report highlighted a range of difficulties that students had experienced including 12% not having access to the right software, 15% not having access to the right hardware, 24% not having access to technical support to deal with problems, 30% not having good enough internet access and 30% not having an adequate study space (e.g. enough space, desk, chair, or quiet). The report flagged lots of positives with online learning and explored what successful digital learning looked like.  It was clear that ensuring digital access was vital for all students, but it was particularly important as way of tackling digital poverty and disadvantage.

Do students recognise when they are disadvantaged?

Another aspect that was really apparent as I talked to professional services and SU colleagues across the sector was that whilst online learning was a huge pivot, so was the shift to providing formerly face to face services and activities online. Indeed my sense was that everyone did this brilliantly and found high levels of student engagement with this, although it did also flag the challenges for those students forced to seek in person help online but who could not take it up as they had no privacy. Student Services were also engaged in supporting students experiencing hardship and digital poverty and one of the interesting aspects to emerge here was the number of students who did not come forward to seek help because they believed there were others who were worse off and more deserving. This led at least one institution to put out a checklist to help students assess their actual level of need. It makes me wonder how much higher the percentage of those in digital disadvantage actually was, especially as it quickly emerged that many students had been relying on their smartphones for online access.

Working with partner HEIs

In the JS Group we played an increasingly central role with partner universities throughout the pandemic.  Close to the students via our Engagement Partners (EPs) and very used to supplying the right solutions for non-traditional learners, we were fast to respond with answers and practical solutions.  Lots of students were in touch directly to buy kit that enabled them to keep going. Most of all they needed to be able to make an individual choice about the right device for them – within the bounds of what was needed for their programme of study. Many HEIs had quickly set up a way of loaning or offering laptops based on the supply of staff devices via IT. It emerged from many of these that this was not the simple solution that it seemed, creating lots of admin, technical work to de-skin from staff set up, as well as not always being received well by students. Some of our HE partners provide their students with digital devices and other resources via their schemes delivered by the JS Group, and our EPs worked with academics and then students to ensure that they got the right kit for their needs.

At Cardiff University, a scheme was set up to help the 4000 students registered with the Disability Service, many of whom had DSA but this funding wasn’t enough given the impact of the pandemic and the switch to online. Working with the University, we quickly offered webcams, better speakers, second screens, height adjustable desks etc. along with a range of wellbeing resources like fidgets and fitness equipment – all the things the students needed to cope and study effectively from home.  At the University of Law, they were trying rapidly to source and distribute printers to help neuro diverse students tackle their exams.  The JS Group stepped in and found the right printers which they then delivered directly to the students. We also worked with partner HEIs to bring forward financial credit awards to enable students to get the remote study resources they needed more quickly and worked with others to support their hardship awards where resources such as digital devices along with home working equipment were given rather than cash.

And now?

We all know that the impact of Covid in HE is far from over but as the 2021/22 new academic year settles, many lessons have been learned about the importance of digital access.  Rapid action was a response to a crisis, but that action is now embedded and playing out in important new ways as blended learning becomes part of the new normal. Many of the students from underrepresented groups who have just joined our universities were the most disadvantaged and seriously impacted pupils as their schools closed during two of their most formative years of study. We all need to pay particular attention to this cohort if they are not to suffer a life of consequence. The gap in access and participation has undoubtedly widened.  Proper digital access at uni from the off, is one way of creating a level playing field and helping to support the worst hit individuals.

Our talented and responsive sector has generated a lot of very well informed and highly targeted interventions. Digital access has moved centre stage.  Lots of HEIs are now offering responsive and effective new schemes through their JS Group partnerships. New partners have come on board because they can see that we have years of expertise in this space. We are proud to offer a toolbox based on decades of experience about what a range of student’s needs. JS Group cares deeply and is embedded in a long-term understanding of the student body.

In ten year’s time we will look back on 2020 and 2021 as years of dramatic challenge from which emerged important change. When we calm down after the storm, (and recover from the physical and mental impact it’s had on staff as well as students) I believe we will all feel proud of our achievements as we rode out the crisis and worked tirelessly to take care of all our students but especially those who most needed and deserved it.

Julie Walkling
Director of Academic Partnerships