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