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Disadvantage and the digital divide in education

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Melodie Potts Rosevear Sunday, November 29th, 2020

In an opinion piece for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on November 22, 2020, TFA’s CEO Melodie Potts Rosevear addressed what’s been learnt this year about inequity and the digital divide, and posed the question: is it time for a digital resourcing standard?

We’re finally freed from the greatest unplanned experiment in education methods our nation has ever endured.

If any sector understands a teaching moment best it must be education. So just what have we learnt in this year like no other?

Talk to any teacher that serves a community where there is socio-economic disadvantage, and they will tell you not only of kids that didn’t have devices or internet or quiet study spaces, but also of some children who lost access to the only safe and consistent place they know.

For every student who enjoyed later starts, wearing pyjamas and the freedom of studying under their own steam, there were far too many more who slipped off the screen.

Post-COVID-19, we can’t ignore what we’ve all just seen – there is a gaping digital divide and it is contributing to inequity in education and limiting future opportunities for some young people.

The concept, at least, of needs-based funding is now almost universally accepted: a child who comes through a school gate with additional needs ought to attract additional funding in order for their education to be delivered.

Is it time for a digital resourcing standard too?

The Three Rs still matter, but so do the Three Ds: devices, dongles and data. Access to physical hardware, laptops or tablets, and reliable internet has been raised over and over again in online learning discussions this year.

The notion that technology is incompatible with learning is dead. Can you believe it was less than a year ago we were banning devices from the classroom? In one year we’ve leapt forward a decade in our acceptance of technology in education.

But there’s a fourth D that matters just as much: digital literacy. For students and teachers.

A Learning First analysis found Victorian schools serving disadvantaged communities were four times as likely to be supplying hard-copy materials to students as schools in more advantaged areas – one of many clear pointers to an inequitable digital divide.

Another report, by Pivot Professional Learning, found teachers working in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools were four times less confident using their school’s primary technology and only half as confident as their colleagues in the most advantaged schools that they had the professional learning necessary to teach online.

Teachers serving these children want to meet their students’ learning needs and they want systems and skills that will let them teach confidently online.

Resourced rightly, digital can open new frontiers for equity for our students who deserve the most support.

Imagine the interventions we can now make possible: online tutoring; wider curriculum choices with classes by other teachers at other schools; or better ways to keep connected to classes, even if students can’t physically be in the classroom.

We owe it to our teachers and our children to embrace a new digital resourcing standard that gives them what they need.

Melodie Potts Rosevear is chief executive officer at Teach For Australia.

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