Solving digital disparities is critical
Online Teaching Tools, Technology

Why solving digital disparities is critical for a future of hybrid learning

Education has seen a huge transformation in recent years. Although online learning was initially embraced to minimise disruption in extreme circumstances, the overall experience created monumental opportunities for progressive change.

Enforced at-home learning became a catalyst for a pedagogical evolution toward bite-sized, student-led learning. As a result, the way educators choose to deliver content has also evolved. Many educators now use connected classrooms as part of everyday hybrid learning. They can create virtual field trips, encourage online student to student collaboration, conduct webinars, and even host virtual campus events.

These technological innovations have enabled us to reimagine learning and provide personalised experiences for students. But to fully capitalise on these innovations, we must address a key issue: equity of access to digital learning.

Digital inequity is a widespread issue

A recent study by Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS) explored the way in which the education sector was affected by the pandemic. All 12 case study interviewees (primary, secondary and tertiary institutions across ANZ and ASEAN) noted that at least some of their students lacked connectivity or access to devices that enabled online learning. This issue was consistent across both the private and public sector.

This digital disparity can be attributed to a number of factors. For some, it’s a lack of connectivity due to geography and national infrastructure. Students in remote locations often struggle with internet connectivity and therefore turn to fallback measures such as mobile data. However, given that online classes use several gigabytes of data, this is a costly and unsustainable solution. 

For other students, it’s an issue of socio-economic inequity. Whether it’s access to affordable and reliable internet connection or access to smart devices, many students simply don’t have the means to participate in online or hybrid learning. This inequity can also apply to institutions. While some educational institutions may have the budget — or access to government grants — that allow them to supply each student with a tablet or laptop, others simply do not. 

Recent years have also seen a significant increase in parent-teacher engagement. There are new expectations and standards for the role parents play in their children’s education. And although this is a good thing on many levels, it also exacerbates the issue of inequality. Online collaboration and interactive tasks are wonderful additions to the educational landscape, but if parents and students don’t have access to the devices or information they need to participate, educational disparities will only increase.

Internet connection no longer a luxury

While the issues and restraints may vary, there is clearly a need to address a few key issues on a national — and global — level. Unprecedented pressure placed on public communications infrastructure highlighted that connectivity is no longer a luxury, but a basic necessity. Education — like countless other sectors — has changed forever, and cloud-based technology will be central to its delivery for the long term. However, as it stands, not all cloud-based solutions can be delivered consistently and globally. Governments and educational institutions therefore need to work together to prioritise equity of access for all. 

The infrastructure that supports remote and hybrid learning environments for primary, secondary and higher educational institutions regardless of economic or geographical factors should be treated as a critical public utility. Prioritising reliable internet connectivity on a national level is essential, while short-term solutions could include grants that enable institutions to provide direct aid and/or equipment to disadvantaged students. Moreover, accessibility features such as closed captioning and live transcription must also be prioritised as we transition to an inclusive hybrid learning future.

Equal opportunities for all

Hybrid learning has the potential to revolutionise and enhance the learning experience on countless levels. However, in order for all students to take advantage of these opportunities and have access to the education they deserve, we must make a conscious effort to minimise — and ultimately erase — digital disparities.

To read the Zoom and IBRS report in full, click here. Or to see the latest news and access to top tips like how to increase student engagement, check out our dedicated Zoom for Education page.

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