Closing the education divide, digitally

In recent months we have seen the full or partial closedown of school campuses and a switch to home schooling and online learning, often at little notice.

The closedown and subsequent opening up has differed around the states, but it has been disruption all round.

A few quickly published reports mostly point to online home schooling being less good educationally than the on-campus equivalent. Some studies claim that up to half of school students are adversely affected, and vulnerable students could fall six weeks behind.

These studies must have been based on very early data and feedback, but let’s assume there has to be some validity in the findings, if only because things were done on such short notice.

The bigger issue is whether it has affected people differentially, with longlasting impacts, possibly opening wider some existing fault lines in Australian society. (I do come to some positives from the whole experience, which are real, shortly.)

What may have happened during the disruption to schooling is that the Education Divide has crashed into the Digital Divide, producing complex and contradictory results.

The Education Divide is not a new idea; it’s as old as formal education itself, and it provides the underpinning for many recent reforms in Australia, notably the Gonski reforms to school funding.

There is recent evidence from the Grattan Institute and others that the Education Divide has widened in recent times, and this may be behind our relative decline in performance in international tests such as PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment). Actually, there are schools that are getting better and better, but there are also schools that are performing worse than before, with the aggregate result that as a nation we are stuck or declining, depending on the measure. The Divide is widening.

So the Education Divide is a real worry.

The Digital Divide is a bit different. It is definitely there but according to the Digital Inclusion Index which comes out each year, the Divide is, on average, closing.

The Index measures access, affordability and ability to use digital technologies.

It is about the whole population, not just school students, and as you might expect the younger population fares better than the older population. But the overall improvement is patchy by geography as well as age group. The average digital inclusion score is particularly low in some rural areas. And Indigenous Australians have relatively low scores, wherever they live, as do people with a disability. The compounding disadvantage around teaching and digital literacy is so marked in remote, rural and regional areas that we have a two speed education system.

There is a crisis looming in regional Australia.

Recently I was priviledged to talk with Allegra Spender, the CEO of the Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN), about some of the innovation and generosity that is being spurred by the crisis. Newly qualified, but more digitally literate teachers helping older colleagues put their decades of experience and knowledge online. The families of some students helping the families of less fortunate ones and the experience of putting teaching reseources online means that now, when a child is sick or unable to attend school their learning is available to them.

This leads to an exciting possibility. If the Digital Divide can be closed by government and community action, and if the lessons learned from online home schooling can be captured and made available to everyone, could we also close the Education Divide?

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