Digital access

The pandemic forced most children in the UK to learn from home for up to six months. Or rather, to try to learn from home, because the pandemic also revealed that, surprisingly enough for the supposedly “digital generation”, lots of young people lacked the means to access education remotely. As you would expect, those from the poorest backgrounds suffered most.

Schools did an stunning job to tackle this. This started with regular drops of paper-based work and was followed by a rapid shift to online learning platforms and an equally swift mastery (after some hilarious and awkward experiences) of online learning techniques. Teachers also clubbed together to create national solutions like the Oak National Academy and to share resources between schools and academy trusts.

I don’t think this gets nearly enough credit. It is a monumental pivot. If it had taken place in Silicon Valley it would be earning titles like ‘blitzscaling’ and we’d listen in awe to the TED talk. But apparently public sector workers showing enterprise and agility is too cognitively dissonant to dwell on.

Of course, the best digital lesson is useless without the tech to access it. So this move online was accompanied by big charitable, corporate and governmental efforts to distribute equipment to the most disadvantaged (for an example close to home, see this initiative). This was a great effort, although not yet complete, and the likelihood of future disruption means we must finish the work.

So, is that it? Recognise the digital divide in education, celebrate schools’ success, close the remaining gap in technology and rest easy?

The challenges of digital access will not be solved by the brilliance of schools nor the distribution of kit. There are at least three more hills to climb before the promise of technology becomes a force for levelling up, rather than a savage wedge through the brittle bonds that hold us together. We need more than just access.

Hill 1: everything but the kit

The first hill is context. Our ability to use digital technologies well goes beyond an internet connection. It goes beyond a large screen and a decent keyboard. It goes beyond 4G. It is hard to study maths at a kitchen table with your brother presenting a project on Teams and your mum on a conference call. It is hard to hand in your assignment on time when your laptop’s broken and there is no-one around to fix it. It is hard to stay focused on Spanish vocab when there is an endless rabbit hole of YouTube content to fall down and the adults in your life are working 14 hour shifts to make ends meet. (Although, now I think about it, maybe good housing and living wages would help here).

The context in which technology is used is vital and much harder to fix than the technology itself: we can’t so easily run a national campaign to distribute spare bedrooms and parental attention. In the absence of solutions to this, a greater reliance on digital education could make things worse. I have written previously about the nightmare consequences (for equality) of the digitally home-schooled in Matthew’s On The Computer.

Hill 2: the wrong sort of access

The second hill is what that digital access is used for. There are plenty of fervent evangelists and strident doom-sayers, but clearly the internet can be a force for good or bad. We can connect, create and investigate. Or we can be surveilled, distracted and hoaxed. We can produce or we can consume. We can earn or we can spend. We can be liberated or addicted. We can find belonging and community or we can be stalked, harassed, groomed, bullied and shamed. Guess who’s most likely to be dealt which hand?

In fact, most teenagers did, of course, have some level of internet access before the pandemic. Just enough to share some memes, knock off a couple of rounds of Clash Royale and stay up all night getting anxious about nasty comments online. Not everyone had enough to read or write extended texts or solve complicated exercises. Not everyone had enough to draw or compose or design.

I hope when we talk about digital access, we are not talking about enabling a passive generation of digital consumers, victims and subjects. If we are to achieve genuinely positive digital access, true equity, we need to ensure that every young person is equipped to control their digital experience, has the skills to be a creator not just a consumer, is clear on their rights (and responsibilities) and is vigorously protected from threats and predators. We need technology that is designed to serve not master, which means a limit on the attention economy. You can’t advertise sugar or tobacco to young people these days, but you can lead them down an endless trail of conspiracy and misinformation. When we steal attention, we steal lives. Until we achieve this for every young person, putting a laptop in their bedroom is about as safe as installing an industrial lathe at the same time: theoretically productive, practically disastrous.

Hill 3: the division of hope

Context and control are the foothills of digital equity for young people. The summit is in sight: eventually they progress beyond the world of education to adult life. Their journey through these foothills will determine how well prepared they are for the main expedition.

Let’s focus for now on one part of that final ascent: work. At the moment, good work is not evenly distributed. By ‘good’ I don’t just mean pay, although the ability to earn a secure living is vital, and I don’t just mean white collar work. I mean work with dignity, meaning, prospects and growth. You can’t find enough of this work in every town and city of our country.

Although for some young people, the choice to leave the place where they grew up is the best thing that could happen to them, and everyone should see more of the wider world, it shouldn’t be necessary to leave to find good work. And although parents will sacrifice almost anything to get their children a better future, it’s hardly surprising if their enthusiasm for education is dimmed if the consequence of getting top grades is that their kids have to move 200 miles away to find a job worthy of those grades.

One result of the pandemic, and our forced experiment with remote working, could be a weakening of the link between geography and work. More jobs can be done from more locations. This could go either way: affluent professionals working long weekends from their cottages in the Cotswolds or a more widely shared economic revival in Hastings, Darlington, Morecombe and Plymouth. The latter option won’t happen by chance. Happily, at least, many employers could achieve their other urgent goals for diversity, engagement, loyalty and resilience by grasping this opportunity. There is reason to hope for leadership from the corporate sector and, interestingly, this would be one of the strongest levers for a post-pandemic education recovery.

We have long talked about skills and education as a foundation of economic growth. Increasingly I believe that it runs both ways: we can more readily improve educational outcomes, even in presence of poverty, where economic opportunity is visible. This partly explains both the London success story in education and why it has been so hard to export it elsewhere. Schools across the country are doing all the right things – all the same things as were done in London, without the same traction. This is because in too many places they are missing a vital ingredient for academic lift off: hope. Spread hope more widely and you will see schools across the country leap forward. They already have all the techniques; there are no secrets to teaching well (just really hard work). They already have the will. They simply lack the fuel. This will start a positive flywheel turning: opportunity will create skills and capacity, which will in turn create more opportunities.

I don’t, by the way, see the sole aim of schools as preparation for work. Learning matters for its own sake and there is more of life to prepare for than earning a living. However the idea that securing a good living is a trivial or distasteful matter to connect to education is a position of monumental privilege. And the presence of opportunity and hope on the economic front gives a nudge which makes the wider work of a school just that little bit easier.

The pandemic has challenged many assumptions and stimulated many desperate experiments. We can build on what we have learned and achieved by climbing three new hills: improving the context in which digital technology is used, democratising the purposes for which it is used and taking the chance of remote working to distribute opportunity and hope more widely across the country.

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