15. School Networking and Digital Equity of Access

Mal Lee

The COVID experience affirmed that within a networked world every young person must have ready use of the digital within their family home, if they are not to be disadvantaged educationally, socially, and economically. 

It is an imperative that many of us have been flagging for the last decade plus (Tapscott, 1998), (Lee and Finger, 2010), (Lee and Levins, 2012) but which thus far has not been accepted by most decision makers.

The importance of each of the nation’s young having ready, quality connectivity and apt digital access within the family home became clear for all to see during the school closures.

What might not have been apparent was that it was the young’s ability to learn with the digital in the home, coupled with the family’s digital resources that made the remote teaching possible. It was the digital mindset, the confidence and competence in using, communicating, and learning with the digital that made it seemingly so easy for students worldwide to be schooled remotely literally within days of the school closures.

It was the learning acquired in being digital, in using the kit and having the support of the family that allowed the young to partake in a fully networked mode of schooling.

The schools and governments of the world have played little or no part in growing the young being digital, in fostering their digital mindset, in nurturing their 24/7/365 use of and competence in using all manner of digital technologies and in the young taking charge of their use of and learning with the digital.

That had all occurred naturally within the digitally connected families.

But disturbingly not so in the families that lacked the connectivity.

That became starkly apparent with the first days of remote teaching.  

Also apparent was that governments worldwide had failed to ensure every one of their children had equity of digital access. 

The young without home connectivity were effectively shut out of the formal and informal learning processes during the school lockdowns.

Worryingly, the trend is for the digital disadvantage to widen, and for the disadvantaged to be further disadvantaged, unless there is astute intervention. 

If governments truly want to reduce the digital divide, to provide genuine equity of digital access and lift national productivity they must intervene, support those in need, accept the world’s young grow being digital in the home not the school, and provide the disadvantaged homes the relatively small funds required. 

In an ideal world governments should fund those families as part of the social services.

The likely reality is that it will be some time before most accept the family home is where the young grow being digital, and that the schools should support and build upon the lead role played by the families.

Understanding that reality, and while recognising there are some visionary governments that have accepted the lead role of the family and are providing the connectivity most are unlikely to do so for some time.

In the interim schools are ideally placed to step into the void, to intervene, monitor each student’s family digital access and if required to sensitively provide the home connectivity.

In most schools it will be a small, relatively inexpensive task that involves less than 10% of student cohort. Indeed, there will be schools where only a handful will need support, but each of those children are important.

What is the situation in your school’s community?

All schools need to do, if they haven’t already done so, is to put the support arrangements in place, publicise them and sensitively monitor all student’s home access. Teachers are ideally placed to do the latter. A divorce, a family blow up can quickly remove the vital connectivity within days.

How well placed is your school to provide the apt support? 

It is important to understand governments worldwide prior to COVID had done little or nothing to improve equity of student access to the digital technology within the family home. 

Some American state governments, particularly Republican, took the view it was not the role of government to support the disadvantaged within their homes (Auxer and Anderson, 2020).

While that likely is not the view of most developed nations, governments universally contended they chose to address the digital divide by channelling monies into the schools and local libraries.

Their argument was that schools were best positioned to teach the appropriate use of the new technology.

Not only did governments fund only its schools they adopted a strategy where the schools controlled every aspect of digital usage, limited the use to ‘serious academic study’, with the ‘appropriate technology’, within structured, linear programs.

Not surprisingly the billions invested did next to nothing to reduce the divide or assist already disadvantaged students grow being digital.

That said some national and provincial governments pre COVID sought to improve student home digital access and connectivity. As far as I can ascertain none were still operational at the start of the pandemic.

Central to all government programs pre-COVID, including those pitched at home usage, has been an unwillingness to trust and empower the children and their parents, and the belief that government and its bureaucrats know best.

Even England’s visionary Home Access Program of the Blair Government (Tolley, 2010) saw the ‘experts’ decide what devices were appropriate and what software must be used by the disadvantaged. 

Well meaning, but patronising.

What the pandemic did, at least for some decision makers. was to underscore the reality all children must have the facility to naturally grow being digital 24/7/365 in the home. 

They moreover understood that ‘all’ meant 100%, not 95% or even 99%, and that the family must be trusted and empowered to use the digital and the connectivity as it thinks best. 

Importantly they are adopting permanent long term arrangements, where the family owns the kit, to do as it wishes. 

They understand short term lending of devices, chosen, configured, and closely monitored by the ‘experts’ is simply an extension of an approach that did nothing to reduce the digital divide.

While President Biden’s vast 2021 national infrastructure initiative which aims to provide the disadvantaged US homes connectivity is a prime example of the new, home focussed approach the efforts by the new Mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu that are designed to ensure every home in the city is connected details what ultimately is desired universally.

The great challenge with these and like initiatives is the willingness and trust and empower the families.

Are they willing to give the families the monies and freedom to do what the other families of the young are already doing? Are they prepared to give those in need the agency to acquire, use and learn with the digital largely unfettered and for the children to naturally grow their being digital? They, like every other citizen must be free to innovate, to make mistakes, to learn from their errors, to use the technology of their choosing to pursue their interests and passions and like all of us bear the consequences of sitting on a smartphone!

It is a simple ask with immense social and educational ramifications.

Remember each child will want kit that allows them to live and thrive socially in a digital and networked world like their peers and friends, to be digital, to have the power to discover, to communicate, chat, order online, play the great games, video conference and to pursue their passions at depth.

The use of the kit for formal learning will be but one of a myriad of uses.

The latter point is critical. Those without want the wherewithal, like every other child to live, learn and in time work in a digital and socially networked society. 

  • Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community, Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Levins, M (2012) Bring Your Own Technology Melbourne ACER Press
  • Tapscott, D (1998), Growing up digital: The rise of the Net Generation, McGraw Hill, New York
  • Tolley, R (2010) ‘UK Home Access Plan: A Case Study’ in Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community, Melbourne ACER Press

Digital Equity of Access

Mal Lee

Equity of access to the digital technology is vital for all the nation’s young.

Indeed one could argue it is so from around the age of two or three, the stage when most in digitally connected families begin growing being digital (Chaudron, 2015).

Ideally in a digital world every young person should have their ‘own’ digital device/s and connectivity, free to use largely unfettered. Even the poorest should like every other child be able to stream shows, create, explore, communicate, post, network, and learn collaboratively with the digital 24/7/365, naturally growing in the everyday usage their digital mindset and being digital.

Every child – and not just the advantaged – should enjoy a normal upbringing in a digital and socially networked world.

Without family, and ideally school, access, support and empowerment children will be disadvantaged, educationally, socially and economically.

It is an ideal that has that been pursued, often unwittingly by the digitally connected families of the world for the last couple of decades. Until 2019 they alone had basically provided their children their digital technology and connectivity, and critically shaped its use and provided the requisite support and direction with a digital mindset.

Not government, and only rarely the schools.

The families have done so remarkably successfully, readily evolving their ways in a rapidly changing scene.

Around 70% or near on 4 billion young people are now digitally connected (UNICEF, 2017), (ITU, 2020). That connectivity is not only more than double that in 2010, but is fundamental in that it saw the shift from a dated analogue to a digital medium (ITU, 2011).  

Typically 90% plus of children aged three or more have digital connectivity in the developed and increasingly large pockets of the developing world (ITU, 2020).  A New Zealand study undertaken post the COVID – 19 shutdown found 93.7% of the students attending Christchurch’s 150 schools had ready home connectivity and access to the desired digital devices (GCSN, 2020), with but 6.3% of students needing government assistance. 

Pre 2020 few governments worldwide shared the ideal of national or universal connectivity.

Some did.

England for example mounted its Home Access Scheme (Tolley, 2010), the government of the day believing it imperative all the nation’s young had home connectivity.  Sadly most efforts died with changes in government, leaving the families to fund the connectivity.

Most schools and governments was thus unprepared when the 2020 pandemic hit, and were obliged to operate digitally and work collaboratively online with their families. They had not shared the ideals of the families or the young about connectivity. Their thinking was still in large shaped by the traditional, insular, site based mindset which saw no real role for families in schooling, or the need for all the nation’s young to be connected. Most had only a limited understanding of their digital connected families’ digital resources, competencies, and preferred mode of learning with the digital. 

One will struggle even today to find a government or education authority which regularly monitors the evolving home digital expertise or resources.

Moreover few had readied themselves to work in a networked mode of teaching, even in a limited form. Revealingly the aforementioned Christchurch study affirmed 22% of secondary teachers markedly underestimated the digital resources of their student’s homes (GCSN, 2020).

Not surprisingly most governments adopted a short term, band aid solution, that paid no regard to the ideals or sterling work of the digitally connected families, or the universal connectivity of the young.  Invariably most, in the belief that only they knew best imposed a dated, largely ineffectual, ‘one size fits all’ model of digital use upon the student’s homes. Most opted to hand out laptops – the same model to everyone. A few provided some home connectivity, but the overall message was clear, employ a short term solution until the return to normal schooling.

In fairness most teachers, schools, national and provincial governments, and corporations from the outset of the shutdowns went out of the way to ensure students in need had the gear and connectivity (UNESCO, 2020). You’ll all have heard of the teachers, schools and companies that went to great length to ensure every child was connected, particularly in the rural and regional areas.

Yes sadly in some situations, like parts of the US (Vogels, et.al, 2020) many did not believe it was the role of government to support families in need. In the midst of the first wave of the pandemic only 53% of US adults believed governments should assist home connectivity of the students (Vogels, et.al, 2020). 

Most teachers, schools and governments, national and provincial understood the importance of looking after each child, and the political and electoral imperative of being seen to provide the kit and connectivity. 

The problem was not the effort expended, but rather the thinking that shaped it, and the failure to adopt a solution for today’s and likely tomorrow’s world.

Collaboration is the key within a networked society. Not unilateral, top down bureaucratic action.

The digitally connected families revealed during the pandemic their ability to operate digitally, demonstrating a level of digital resourcing that has for many years surpassed that available in most classrooms (Lee and Ryall, 2010). 

Vitally they also demonstrated their willingness to collaborate with, and support the schools, making possible the remote teaching. They, not government provided the bulk of the digital infrastructure, technology, connectivity and support for the online teaching – at no cost to the schools or government.

They showed why they had successfully connected 90% plus of the developed nation’s young, and why they – and not government – would lead the way to the near universal 24/7/365 connectivity of the nation’s young.

The visionary schools that shaped their operations with a digital mindset, and which had normalised the use of the digital understood the digital capability of their families, and the imperative of genuinely collaborating with them.

They also had long understood the importance of equity of access, and every student having home connectivity.  A decade ago in readying BYOT (Lee and Levins, 2012) school after school used as a case study proclaimed the necessity of looking after every child, and the relative ease of so doing.

Why governments and their administrators have still to embrace that imperative makes one wonder.

While still early days post the COVID – 19 shutdowns it appears most governments intend to return to the traditional ways of teaching and schooling, to continue the focus on the basics and use the digital peripherally in the classroom.  

In early 2021 one will struggle globally to find any government that provides home connectivity for students in need, or which expresses the desire for universal home connectivity. Situations like Lafayette County (US) are difficult to find.

Most appear to view the pandemic as an aberration, and are letting slide the educational imperative of ensuring every child, and not just the advantaged, have digital access 24/7/365, from early in life.

The very strong message at this point in history is that if your school believes in digital equity of access it must take the lead in its achievement.

The job is not hard. 

But it does require a head committed to the quest, and a school staff willing to respect, trust, empower and genuinely collaborate with their families in the use of their digital resources. It entails acknowledging the students will use their own devices and digital resources.

The number of students today in need of support is likely to be small. The Christchurch numbers are likely to be found in most developed nations. A potential challenge is ensuring all students in large families have ready access.

The cost of apt devices has dropped, and continues to fall.  Near all schools can provide the financial support or draw on a range of sources to secure the money.

While most schools can fund the access and connectivity there are invariably local service groups and government agencies able to assist as well.

What is required is that each year the school will, as a normal part of its operations with each new cohort sensitively identify those in need of support, and arrange it is provided.

Approach that support with a digital mindset, understanding each family’s situation and needs, empowering the family to make what it believes the apt decision.

It is time to stop the paternalism – well intentioned and unwitting as it might be.

For too long those in authority, the school, the bureaucracy have decided what the poor need.

Try if possible to give money, particularly for the devices.

Understand how important respect, trust and empowerment is to all digitally connected families, and their children. Connectivity is connectivity, but the message communicated in enabling the family, child/children to choose the desired device and apps is immense.

One of the great failings of England’s Home Access scheme (Tolley, 2010) was middle level bureaucrats deciding what technology was appropriate for those in need. Their actions trumpeted very loudly the poor and marginalised couldn’t be trusted to make the right choice. 

Digitally connected families worldwide are invariably technology agnostic, using within their ecosystem a mix of operating systems and technologies.

That said most in the family like to choose their own personal device/s. Some will prefer a tablet, others a desktop or laptop. Some will prefer Android, some Apple and others Windows.  Some will after a couple of years change.

It matters not.  

Nor does whether the students are using gold plated laptops or reconditioned units. It is the capability of the user that counts.

The bottom line is that every one of your students should have apt 24/7/365 home connectivity, able to take charge of their use of and learning with the digital.


In an ideal world the funding for those in need requiring connectivity for their children should be factored into the social service payments, enabling governments to operate all its agencies on the knowledge of universal digital connectivity, obviating the need to prop up a decaying postal service.

But until that is done it will be up to the school. 

  • Lee, M and Levins, M (2012) Bring Your Own Technology Melbourne ACER Press
  • Tolley, R (2010) ‘UK Home Access Plan: A Case Study’ in Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community, Melbourne ACER Press
  • UNICEF (2017) Children in a Digital World. The State of the World’s Children 2017. UNICEF December 2017 – https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/SOWC_2017_ENG_WEB.pdf