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COVID-19 One Year On – A Digital Divide Persists

A survey has documented the existence of a digital divide in higher education.
A survey has documented the existence of a digital divide in higher education.
  • COVID-19 is a magnifying glass for inequalities in access to online learning
  • A global survey documents persistent digital divide, as well as ‘double’ divide within universities
  • More must be done to support digital transformation in higher education, global body insists

A global poll undertaken by the BBC World Service at the height of the pandemic revealed that nearly six out of 10 people worldwide have been impacted financially by COVID-19.

This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. COVID-19 has rocked countless industries – from the obvious, such as retail and hospitality, to the more unexpected professions, like recruitment and even professional sport. Restrictions on travel and face-to-face interactions have demanded sector-wide changes to traditional practice.

It’s because of this, however, that one of the lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be the widespread innovation that has taken place. When we look back at how we, as community, adapted to challenges COVID-19 presented, one sector that will arguably stand out as having reacted the most swiftly will be higher education.

What felt like an ‘overnight’ shift from face-to-face lectures to online delivery enabled classes, broadly speaking, to continue to take place and students continue learning. However, while there’s no doubt that the international higher education sector has much to be proud of, a study has documented that more needs to be done to level the playing field when it comes to accessing online learning.

A survey, undertaken the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), has documented the existence of a digital divide in higher education, with many students, faculty and leadership staff struggling to access broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, which sought to gain a snapshot of digital engagement across the Commonwealth during the pandemic, found that stark disparities in internet connectivity and infrastructure persist as, while 83% of respondents from high income countries reported having access to broadband, only 19% of respondents from low income countries could say the same. Reflecting on the findings of the report, ACU Chief Executive and Secretary General Dr Joanna Newman MBE FRSA, has warned that digital access and equity has been “one of the most pressing issues since the pandemic began”.

The findings of the report reflect the frustrations and concerns being shared by a number of senior figures within the global higher education sector. For example, when interviewed for a Forbes article, Pal Ahluwalia, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific (USP), detailed the challenges students on the island of Fiji have faced during the pandemic with connectivity issues and, similarly, Cheryl de la Rey, Vice Chancellor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand revealed that many students also struggled with broadband-related issues as well as technology shortages.

And, according to recent statistics from the UK’s Office of Communications (known as Ofcom), shortages in laptops, tablets and other devices needed for access remote learning has left between 1.14 and 1.78 million children in the UK – nine percent, in other words – without any access to online learning.

So it would seem that rifts in the availability of broadband and devices goes beyond the outwardly-simple breakdown of Global North versus South. This is seen in the ACU’s survey findings, as it was revealed that gaps in digital engagement existed within universities and not just geographies. Senior leaders were reported to most likely have access to broadband (74%), followed by professional services staff (52%), academics (38%) and, lastly, students (30%). 

Reflecting on what the ACU has dubbed a ‘double digital divide’, Lucy Shackleton, author of the survey, said, “unequal access to digital infrastructure and connectivity is a fundamental aspect of this divide. Infrastructure-related challenges – specifically internet speed, data costs and internet reliability – were the top three most frequently cited challenges associated with remote working for university staff (and students), in our survey.

“Unsurprisingly, these infrastructure- and connectivity-related challenges are particularly prevalent among low- and lower-middle-income countries.”

With the findings in mind, Shackleton and her colleagues also set out a number of recommendations to universities and policymakers, which included governments prioritising funding for higher education; investing in tackling the digital divide; and supporting university digital transformation initiatives.

Looking ahead, Dr Newman insists that progress can be made in the battle to close the access gap if we heed the lessons of this pandemic.

“We have an opportunity to build towards greater digital equality by investing in quality online and blended education, and by embedding the lessons of 2020–21 into policy and practices,” she said. “Working together within the sector and beyond, we can improve digital equality and meet the demand for higher education globally.”

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