How has the information age changed the way children learn and how universal is internet access in 2021? As reforms to NAPLAN assessments mean that students’ digital literacy will be tested, let’s investigate the latest evidence on digital inclusion in education.
Statistics confirm what we all know to be true — technology is increasingly embedded in our lives, widely used in classrooms, workplaces, and at home. Computers and mobile devices have become part of daily life in developed countries, despite being a relatively young area of human innovation.
According to the latest ABS survey, 97% of households with children aged under 15 have internet access (of those asked). This is very encouraging. There are exciting possibilities for enhancing education with technology, such as with augmented reality. Our children are growing up with digital media playing a key role in their lessons and leisure time, often turning to phones and tablets for entertainment too. There is so much knowledge available at our fingertips.
The government recently completed the National Broadband Network, the biggest infrastructure project in Australia’s history. This is an excellent investment in our ‘digital future’, although the project took more time and funding than originally planned. However, there are some concerns about affordability for low-income households in accessing the NBN and barriers to uptake in the form of digital literacy (see more data on this topic here).
There is much cause to be optimistic, with Australia ranking 4th in the global Inclusive Internet Index, up from 14th in 2020. That’s a huge improvement. The global pandemic has unarguably accelerated the digital transformation of society. But what about the 3% who remain digitally excluded?
There are still 1.3 million households offline. The Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance has called for the government to address this in their recent Digital Economy Strategy, which doesn’t incorporate the ADIA’s National Digital Inclusion Roadmap from 2020.
So how has COVID-19 impacted on digital inclusion as we work towards recovery from the pandemic nationally and globally? Not every family can afford the computers or tablets that enhance learning at home, and those who are still offline are being left behind.
The facts on digital inclusion and technology for school age children
The most recent report from the Australian Digital Inclusion Index shows the following trends:
- Overall, digital inclusion has increased year-on-year since 2014, but momentum is slowing.
- Those facing socio-economic barriers are being left behind as services and communities move online. The digital inclusion gap is widening.
- More than 2.5 million Australians remain offline, mostly in rural areas and older age groups. A quarter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples lack internet access.
- Digital inclusion is still significantly higher in urban areas compared to rural ones, and this gap varies between different states and territories.
- Digital literacy has increased each year nationally, but there is still work to be done in empowering people to safely and confidently use information technologies.
- There is an important new report (Connecting on Country) that focuses on closing the digital divide for children in Indigenous Australian households. Progress is flatlining in connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
- Affordability remains a key challenge and will only be worsened by the economic impact of COVID-19.
- The pandemic has been highly disruptive for students in low-income families, according to the report’s findings (as it has been for everyone).
According to a new report on the State of Technology in Education, around 74% of educators prioritise technology in their school strategy. COVID-19 school closures and quarantines accelerated the necessity of remote learning, when teachers had to move lessons online. In another recent survey on schooling post-pandemic, 91% of people consider it important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to be provided with the laptops/devices needed for schoolwork.
Using a learning management system or digital learning environment has become more widespread and independent home schooling is on the rise, in part due to the pandemic. Schools and local governments rose to the challenge and ensured all children had access to remote learning, either in a digital or paper format. It is important that teachers receive the training and support they need to deliver remote learning when faced with school closures — only 2% surveyed said they currently had this.
Technology and learning have become intertwined in the 21st century, with the World Wide Web both an incredible pool of information and fraught with dangers for developing minds. Affordability, network access, and digital literacy can all affect engagement with online learning. When you look at the statistics, it becomes clear that digital exclusion and social disadvantage go hand in hand.
The social groups more likely to be digitally excluded are:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
- Low-income households
- People with a disability
- Rural and remote households
- Older people
- Mobile-only users
- People with lower levels of education
Some small businesses and charities are also struggling in the switch to digital, while other organisations lead the way in becoming contactless and wireless. Better coordination across sectors and in government policy will be needed to bridge the digital divide in Australia to ensure equal access to services and opportunities. Now that the NBN is complete, digital literacy and affordability are the main obstacles remaining, with complex social issues affecting digital inclusion.
It should be said that there are already excellent charities and initiatives helping families who lack technology for learning, such as Media Access Australia, State Schools Relief, The Smith Family, The Sixth Child, among others.
The possibilities of online learning and technology
In many ways, the internet has made access to knowledge more democratic, and at its best can be a gateway to lifelong learning and community. However, over the past decade, we have seen the rise of fake news and disinformation having real-world consequences.
For young people, the biggest risks online are cyberbullying, scammers, and sexual content or predators. As educators and parents, we have to incorporate media literacy and internet safety into our children’s upbringing, even when we grew up offline. There is lively debate over how much screen time is healthy, and whether our devices are a blessing or a curse.
Like any tool, when used wisely digital devices can improve our lives and bring exciting possibilities into education, including better access to information for students of different abilities. This is why it’s so important that the people behind the digital media that children use for learning are regulated and driven by social purpose.
As an EdTech publisher, my organisation Twinkl has embraced new ways of learning such as augmented reality and interactive resources, while also being committed to diversity and accessibility in educational content. In terms of inclusion, this added variety can help kids with different needs stay engaged with the topic of study (see also Google Expeditions). Apps and digital resources also empower educators to teach anywhere, any way they like. You can take lessons outdoors with AR, or get creative with digital art and coding for kids using mobile learning.
When it comes to digital assessment like NAPLAN online, these can be efficient and personalised where there is high digital literacy in students. Online testing means better access to data, which helps to improve assessments in future. Of course, the value of standardised tests is another topic of debate, and issues of connectivity or digital ability still present barriers to fair assessment. That’s why NAPLAN will include Year 6 and 10 testing of scientific and digital literacy as well as citizenship where schools choose to opt in. This would allow schools to assess student’s ability in useful areas beyond English and maths.
Digital technologies add to the education toolkit and can make learning lively and interactive. As teachers or parents, we can decide which options best suit each child. Working on computers and mobile devices will also equip young people with future-proof digital skills.
Building a digital future with no child left behind
There will always be sceptics and negative reactions when inventions take off; look at the disruption that the printing press or electricity caused in their day. Educators have to be forward-thinking and embrace the challenges or changes which come their way.
Teachers across the country proved they are resourceful and resilient when faced with school closures and remote learning over the past year, ensuring that students lacking internet access could attend school or received the same learning in a paper format.
The situation certainly highlighted the value and potential of educational technology. Policymakers should prioritise funding for digital learning in schools and ensure families can make use of the internet through a truly open-access network (as David Spriggs from the ADIA eloquently called for).
Socio-economic barriers must be understood and overcome to enable equal opportunities for children in the digitised future. As teachers and parents, we should work towards digital inclusion in our classrooms, homes, and workplaces. Especially in light of a global outbreak when we realised how essential online learning and communication can be. We all benefit from being better connected.