How to help every child learn remotely

Many children in the UK do not have adequate access to smart devices or even internet connectivity, but concerned organisations are trying to ensure nobody is left behind

Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

Preventing digital exclusion appears high on the government’s agenda. Some £100 million has been poured into remote digital learning, including delivery of more than 200,000 devices for disadvantaged children, plus £1 billion invested in a COVID catch-up fund.

Yet according to the Education Policy Institute (EPI), more than 450,000 devices are needed, with 20 per cent of children eligible for free school meals having no access to a computer at home.

Why the current schemes aren’t good enough

According to the Department for Education (DfE), initiatives such as the Oak National Academy online classroom and EdTech Demonstrator Programme best-practice network play a pivotal role in ensuring technology has a positive impact. But industry practitioners argue a lack of innovation, co-ordination, oversight and forward-thinking.

“The laptop distribution scheme has taken far longer than planned for devices to reach their end-users, which means many students have been without access to digital resources for the duration of the school closures. The eligibility criteria were also quite narrow, so many students will have missed out,” says the EPI’s director of communications and external engagement Rhys Spence.

Charities such as the Access Project, which helps disadvantaged students gain access to top universities, have turned increasingly to corporate partners. For example, a recent £23,000 donation covered 60 laptops and relevant software.

“Next summer you’re potentially going to see A-level and GCSE grades really dipping because there hasn’t been enough time for students to catch up. Corporate partners stepping up to bridge the gap is vital,” says Access Project programme and volunteering director Lucy Ball.

More than £32 million in free resources was provided to schools between March and May, according to the British Education Suppliers Association. The likes of BT have partnered with the DfE to provide six months’ free wi-fi to families in need, as well as launching its Skills for Tomorrow online learning hub, Barefoot Computing programme to support teacher training and collaborations with charities, such as Barnardo’s, School-Home Support and KidsOut, with digital exclusion initiatives.

Collaborating to keep kids from digital exclusion

With the longevity of such initiatives called into question, BT responds that it’s in talks with the DfE to expand its work to tackle digital exclusion.

“We’ve already helped 2.8 million children and our goal is to help five million by 2025,” says Professor Kerensa Jennings, BT group director of digital impact. “It’s critical to keep up momentum and make sure the progress we’re making continues to drive impact as lockdown eases and we move into the future.”

Collaborations between industry, government and schools, are critical to provide resilience to education systems, according to the EPI. This is echoed by Sharon Davies, chief executive of Young Enterprise, which teaches young people financial savviness and entrepreneurship. Davies advocates for a greater leveraging of community resources to house lessons within spaces like youth clubs, and capitalise on support from local mentors and champions.

“We have to accept young people need to learn digital skills and new ways of communicating and getting jobs. We have to find a way round this lack of access or it will compound existing disparities,” she says.

Helping disadvantaged learners work remotely

Whatever the approach, the EPI is calling on government to ensure the strategy is centralised and coherent, to avoid deepening inequality of access between schools that are able to foster high-level partnerships and those that are not, says Spence, who points to pilot initiatives underway to support pupils with digital learning centrally.

The Eduu.School, for example, is a partnership between edtech platform Gluu, the Shireland Collegiate Academy in the West Midlands, Birmingham and Black Country local authorities, and the Trauma Response Network to help disadvantaged learners working remotely.

Next summer you may see A-level and GCSE grades dipping because there hasn’t been enough time for students to catch up

“The findings from these and other innovative trials should be considered centrally to determine possible applications in the school system,” the EPI recommends. Indeed, Gluu chief executive Christine Major is buoyed by the high engagement levels across Eduu.School, from live lessons to wellbeing, virtual field trips, coding, languages and prizes.

“We set out with the intent of reaching 1,000 students, but once the word was out, the doors were opened much wider. We have 3,000 students across 15 schools in Eduu.School and are being asked to take on more. We’re really happy with how it’s going, now it’s a matter of the evaluation piece,” says Major.

With Gluu co-founder Sean Gardner, she will present to government, with the intention of making Eduu.School available to all UK students, containing downloadable content optimised for mobile.

Remote learning preparing kids for future of work

Gluu’s core work has been to scale edtech solutions from individual schools by matching them with big-ticket partners, then commercialising finished products back within the system. While it has been a piecemeal approach, the Gluu team are now seeing barriers fall.

“There’s been a real shift in terms of a collaborative coalition approach. We’re pulling together partners to deliver Eduu.School who previously might not have worked together,” says Gardner.

“There’s a realisation our children are in a difficult place. I don’t think any teacher is looking to put hurdles in place, so things have changed definitely. We’ve invited a number of stakeholders to be part of the Eduu.School evaluation and if that doesn’t prompt them into action, we can’t do any more.”

One of the biggest shifts also to have an impact on digital exclusion is how the future of learning is mirroring the future of work.

“The lockdown has made us consider what attendance is: no longer 9am to 3.30pm. That puts the onus for learning more on the student than the teacher. That’s a good thing,” says John Galloway, veteran teacher, consultant and advisory board member for edtech trade show Bett.

Problem is bigger than a lack of devices

Galloway indicates it’s not just a lack of devices and bandwidth at the core of digital exclusion, but the ability to work independently. This must also be considered and supported in the rollout of digital learning programmes, from adapting student mindsets to how, and what, teachers teach.

“Working from home with materials sent to you means you have more control over what you’re learning and when. You have to set aside time and make decisions. It may be Monday morning at 9am isn’t the best time for you to learn French. So do art instead. If we are going to be working from home so much more, then this shift is going to be preparing students for that,” says Galloway.

“It may mean someone’s future success is dependent on the ability to create structure around the task required. That is going to create a divide between those able to do that and those less able.”

Young Enterprise’s Davies agrees the recovery will need to focus beyond academic learning, incorporating opportunities through partnerships to learn and work collaboratively. “If we can get it right with social mobility, access to role models, access to aspirations, we could make things better,” she concludes.