Southampton University has launched a report, commissioned by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., analysing how digital exclusion is being fuelled in classrooms by a lack of access to devices and connectivity.
By surveying teachers, lecturers, students, IT support staff and educational sector regulators in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, the research measures the impact that a lack of devices and connectivity is having today – as well as the effect an ongoing shortage will have on the connected classroom and education in Europe.
Educators and students across Europe are acutely aware of the challenges and disruption caused by Covid-19. As parts of Europe start to emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, 2022 will be a critical year as the Education sector seeks to return to something approaching normality. The pandemic has changed many elements of teaching and learning, making 2022 a critical inflection point as the Education sector analyses learnings from the pandemic and asks how it can best equip itself to deliver on the promise of the future of the classroom.
A key question will be how to close the digital divide which became even more apparent during the pandemic, with some students effectively locked out of certain education methods due to a lack of suitable devices or connectivity – and sometimes both.
Based on responses from 2,571 European respondents, the study demonstrates there are few boundaries to the digital divide. Across the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, over one third (36%) of respondents described the effect of the digital divide as “high or very high”. An additional 39% described the impact of the digital divide as “medium” with only 25% describing it as “low” or “very low.”
Disadvantaged areas are experiencing the same digital divide barriers as pre-Covid conditions
The research unravels how respondents in educational settings perceive hybrid learning environments and compares access to on-campus and in-classroom connectivity vs home Wi-Fi, showing that plenty of students across Europe have been grappling with accessibility to technology which impedes access to learning and educational opportunity. In 2020 the World Economic Forum (WEF) revealed that more than one billion childrenacross the globe are currently locked out of classrooms because of quarantine measures. Regardless of the fact that countless schools are running daily online classes – many of these children simply cannot take part. The uniquely challenging conditions of the past two years have only exacerbated the issue, creating serious obstacles for students and educators.
A lack of connectivity and access to devices left many low-income families across the world at a disadvantage during the previous 20 months – with “hybrid” teaching and learning taking place in the classroom and virtually based on the rate of infection at the time. However, we know that innovation and technologies like 5G, combined with support from governments and the technology industry in terms of up levelling agendas, government initiatives and discounted plans and devices, can play a critical role in closing the digital divide. For a significant number of families, this digital divide will remain a reality long after the pandemic, so it’s vital that organisations work to ensure the availability of 5G, devices and programmes well into the future.
Hybrid learning environments will remain the new normal for Education
As we navigate through the next phase of the pandemic, variants with high transmission rates are causing staff shortages and student sickness is plunging education institutions back into hybrid learning environments. According to the research, a significant number of respondents (80%) indicate that hybrid learning will remain an important element of instruction practices going forward. Given the wide pool of respondents across multiple educational settings, this hyper-relevant sample of respondents in the heart of the Education sector, confirms that hybrid learning is long term, everywhere, and the Education and Technology sectors must work together to overcome this global challenge.
Internet connectivity on-site vs at home
When examining the strength of internet connectivity in higher education and University settings, in terms of very poor and poor Wi-Fi quality, the findings demonstrate that students with access to high-speed internet connectivity at home often experience worse Wi-Fi quality while in class/on campus. At home, where many students have found themselves throughout long periods of the pandemic, a total of 15% of students reported having only poor (3.9%) or fair (11.1%) Wi-Fi. Poor or fair Wi-Fi is likely to cause issues for online education either in terms of availability or speed of connection – or both, which may prevent students from taking part in teaching sessions conducted over video calls.
The quality of home and school Wi-Fi networks may be influenced by the pressure on school Wi-Fi due to the sheer volume of students all trying to connect to the same connection, compared to home Wi-Fi where the number of connected devices will be significantly less. In a school setting students may be further away from Wi-Fi access points (e.g., a router) than they would be at home. Perhaps in part for these reasons, students reported experiencing more connectivity issues in their classrooms, libraries and campuses compared to at home when accessing high-speed Internet using computing devices.
According to our research, a digital divide is felt both at home and in classroom settings. This is an important finding because it shows that initiatives to address the digital divide should not take education settings for granted and must focus on accelerating connectivity inside and outside of the classroom alike. This is particularly important for students who may not be able to learn from home.
Separate research from Statista shows that all the five countries included in this research, to some extent, have an Internet penetration gap. For instance, the UK has 92.17% Internet penetration, meaning there is still scope to address the Internet connectivity gap in the Global North where it might otherwise be assumed that access to connectivity is generally no longer a problem.
The University of Southampton research highlights a technology knowledge gap contributing to the connectivity gap. The study asked respondents for their views on Always Connected Personal Computers (ACPCs), which combine the efficiency of a smartphone’s processor in the body of a laptop computer. These devices feature inbuilt cellular connectivity via a SIM card and do not need Wi-Fi connection or external broadband devices for internet connectivity, making them suitable for remote working and learning.
Growing the presence of these devices in education settings is required based on the findings of the research. ACPCs are one solution to closing some of the challenges experienced. ACPCs rely less on Wi-Fi due to their cellular capabilities. The use of mobile data also brings additional data security features that traditional devices lack. Couple this with incredible battery life, ACPCs set the standard for device usage in and outside of the classroom. When the basics of ACPCs were explained, 52% of respondents said they were willing to adopt them. But only 31% of respondents were actually aware of ACPCs. Closing this 21% gap will be crucial to closing the connectivity gap in Education. This point is only reinforced by the fact that 87% of respondents expect ACPCs to become important in delivering hybrid learning and 69% believe ACPCs will aid learning at home and at school.
Elliott Levine, director, Worldwide Education, Qualcomm Technologies Inc. “For the past two years, educators from every corner of the world have come together to demonstrate the remarkable energy, passion, and resiliency to promote academic outcomes for our children. This study brought a voice to those educators across Europe, and we heard their opinions loud and clear. To succeed, teachers and students both need always-connected devices with the performance and battery life to make hybrid learn both effective and sustainable. We at Qualcomm share that vision and commitment to our technology.”
Dr PK Senyo is an Associate Professor in FinTech and Information, Southampton University “The way that we teach, and students learn has been redefined forever. Many people believe that digital divides only occur outside of a classroom or campus, but this research has highlighted that we must act to provide the appropriate connectivity and access to devices while students are on-site too. It’s a reform that the Education sector has required for some time, albeit forced by the pandemic, but one we must now harness to provide the best teaching and learning experiences. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to address the digital divide challenge, but we need to do it now, to ensure every student is on a level playing field.”
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