Working with our HE partners to support their students with digital poverty and digital access

Over the past 12 months the sector has seen a rapid and significant transition from in-person teaching to online delivery. It has been a year of innovation, experimentation, reflection and learning.

Much of this was captured in the OfS’s Gravity Assist report and recommendations. The report highlighted one issue that universities, colleges and governments have recognised and have been responding to, the critical importance of digital access and the need to address digital poverty and disadvantage.

The OfS has identified a number of key facets of digital poverty that relate to digital access:

Appropriate Hardware

Students have the hardware that allows them to effectively access all course content. Hardware is of the specification required to ensure that the student is not disadvantaged in relation to their peers.

Appropriate Software

Students have the software they need to effectively access all aspects of course content.

Robust technical infrastructure

Technical infrastructure and systems work seamlessly and are repaired promptly when needed.

Reliable access to the internet

Students have reliable and consistent access to an internet connection. Reliability and bandwidth of the internet connection are at a sufficient level for ensuring that a student is not disadvantaged in relation to their peers.

A trained teacher or instructor

Students have a trained teacher or instructor who is equipped to deliver high-quality digital teaching and learning.

An appropriate place to study

Students have consistent access to a quiet space that is appropriate for studying.

So how should universities respond to the reality that digital poverty can hinder digital access in a number of different ways – students not having the appropriate hardware or software, capped data plans, unreliable or insecure access to the internet, not having an appropriate study space, environment or equipment.

Providing those students with cash is not always the ideal solution as there are competing demands for any additional cash.

Providing highly specific equipment or resources is not a scalable response.  Trying to identify the precise need of each student and responding with an appropriate resource is a complex and time-consuming a process, involving a complex supply chain.  The blanket provision of equipment such as a laptop risks not meeting the individual context for each student where issues can be highly individualised, such as connectivity, the appropriate digital device or OS, need for a second screen, noise cancelling headphones or having an appropriate study environment.

The solution we have developed in partnership with a number of universities addresses these issues, empowering students to make individual choices from within University defined parameters. It has proved quick and easy to implement and it allows students to choose the exact resource that will make a positive difference for them.

We believe that this co-developed solution also allows universities to have a considered response to the first two points of the checklist that the OfS has published for 2021/22:

Assess students’ digital access on a one-to-one basis and address issues before learning is lost

  • How will you apply our definition of digital access to identify challenges for new and returning students?
  • What steps will you take to help students mitigate potential issues before they become a problem?
  • Have you considered a range of scenarios? Are your plans flexible enough to accommodate uncertainty about the extent to which digital delivery will be required?

Inform students what digital skills they will need

  • Do students know what skills they will need before term starts?
  • Can they be directed to resources to develop them before starting their course?

How this solution works:

  • JS Group creates an online store where students can choose and purchase the digital resource that will make the difference for them - be that a laptop, noise cancelling headphones, a higher resolution screen, mobile data, office equipment, online courses etc.
  • The university identifies students with a need and allocates funds to those students.
  • The university specifies the scope of resources to be offered.
  • JS Group sets-up online accounts where students can access their funds.
  • Those resources are delivered to students within 72 hours.
  • JS Group provides reporting on the resources that students have selected to help inform university policy going forward.

This is how some of the universities we partner with have been using this solution:

Cardiff University recognised the additional pressures faced because of the switch to remote learning and wanted to further support their students with a declared disability and some students already in receipt of digital poverty awards. Each student has received £350 from the University and JS Group has set-up accounts for them and a website where they can choose their resources.

Teesside University and JS Group had an existing partnership to deliver the Teesside Advance scheme.  As part of that scheme, every student receives an iPad but the University recognised that mobile data was an issue for many so asked JS Group to include mobile data on the Teesside Advance student online store.

The University of Law needed to support neurodiverse students who had to take online exams and assessments and working with JS Group we set-up accounts for those students so they could order the printers, webcams and other equipment they needed to take their proctored exams.

The University of Worcester has been partnering with JS Group for a number of years on their Reach scheme that supports student success and learning. The University identified digital poverty as an issue at the start of the year and created a technology hardship fund that students can apply for. These funds are then added to the student’s Reach account and we increased the range of resources available under the scheme to ensure that each student could get the resources they needed.