How to bridge ‘digital divide’ as schools shut – Bill Carmichael

THE latest lockdown has hit us all badly, but I must admit I felt especially sorry for parents with school-age children who have been messed about something rotten.

The Government is being urged to speed up the supply of laptops to students studying at home.

The closedown of classrooms announced earlier this week came at very short notice, and on the same day that many primary schools had just returned after the Christmas holidays.

My children are all grown up now, so I am lucky enough not to experience these problems, but I know that many of my colleagues with younger offspring were left desperately hunting around for child care, or pleading with schools to take their children on the grounds that they are essential workers.

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And let’s not forget that teachers have been knocked sideways by the latest developments too, and have suddenly had to scrabble around for ways to move their teaching online. I know from my own work that moving to a virtual classroom, with the massive upskilling that involves, for example filming and editing video and mastering Zoom or Google Meet in a very short timescale, can be very stressful.

The latest lockdown is having huge consequences for education, writes Bill Carmichael.

Many people are lucky enough to work from home at the moment, but even then it is not an ideal situation. Trying to hold an important Zoom meeting with business colleagues while the kids are bouncing off the walls in the background is not conducive to creative thought.

Incidentally, if you are in the situation of being forced to home-school, may I recommend a fantastic resource that can really help your children keep up to speed with their education?

It is called the Oak National Academy and it is run by a charity and is entirely free to use. It contains hundreds of high quality online lessons devised by experienced teachers, covering dozens of topics, and caters for children from reception classes up to A-level standard.

If you are looking for resources to keep your children occupied, engaged and enthusiastic about their learning, it really is well worth checking out.

Home learning has revealed a stark digital divide.

And that leads me to a horrible thought. Sure, most parents will use resources like the Oak National Academy, or encourage their children to engage with online lessons provided by their school during the closure period.

And most will be able to afford a decent broadband connection and modern laptops or tablets for their children, which are necessary for efficient online learning.

But not everyone will, and it is the most disadvantaged children who are the most likely to suffer the most during the current school closures. There is a real danger here that the lockdown will exacerbate inequalities and massively widen the so-called “digital divide”.

If you are stuck at home, unable to go to school or local authority library, or mostly anywhere else, and you can’t afford the latest gizmos and fast internet access, you are going to fall behind your fellow pupils even further.

According to the Leeds-based charity SHINE, an estimated 1.78 million children in the UK lack access to a laptop or desktop computer or a tablet. That is a lot of children who risk falling behind.

Sure some fantastic charities have suddenly popped up to address this issue, such as Laptops for Kids in Sheffield and Leeds Tech Angels, and many others throughout Yorkshire, which are appealing for companies and individuals to donate unwanted and unused equipment that will be digitally wiped clean and then re-distributed to disadvantaged children.

If you have an old laptop or tablet lying about that you don’t need, I can recommend you give them a call.

And the Department for Education has announced it is dispatching 100,000 laptops to schools. But if the lockdown goes on for weeks, or even months, as seems likely, this is not going to be enough.

The Government needs to do more, and the big tech companies which are doing very well out of the lockdown 
(hello Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon!) should be encouraged – aka leant on – to lend a hand, and perhaps the internet service providers can pitch in too.

This shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. A quick internet search tells me that Currys PC World is currently selling a brand new Chromebook for less than £170, and refurbished machines are even cheaper.

That sounds like a very cheap price to give a disadvantaged child a good education and the hope of a better and brighter future.

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