XChange06 – Crossing the digital divides

Jul 08, 2006

Miles Berry

Powerful presentation from Valerie Thompson, executive director of the e-Learning Foundation on digital divide issues, and who should take responsibility for them. I’ve commented elsewhere on the idea that actually the digitial divide isn’t quite as pronounced as some would maintain, and that it’s often used as an excuse for not doing more to establish IT-enabled links between home- and school-based learning. Valerie sees the digital divide as a subset of a wider social divide, and I think that cultural divide issues are far having a more significant impact on pupil attainment than home computers ever will. Addressing this sort of socio-economic or cultural divide, and getting all parents involved and concerned with their children’s learning is far harder, but far more important than, providing home computers.

That said, I can’t really argue with her that,

“It is vitally omportant that every child in Briatin gets access to these technologies, not just for a couiple of hours a day in the classroom but when and where they want, so that every child has the opporetunituy of advancement in our brave new world”.

Valerie sees the provision of home computers as a thing for which schools should be taking responsibility. I’m not so sure, but it is one way of tackling at least the digital divide symptoms pretty head on. She quotes a figure of some two million computers in schools, a quater of which are portable (and apparently there’s a quarter that don’t actually work as well), yet only 20% of secondary schools, and 6% of primary schools let the computers go home.

She sees three possible solutions for schools:

  • Prioritising access to ICT (which is expensive, and would be at the expense of other areas),
  • Making use of government initiatives (which are, quite rightly, targeted only at the most disadvantaged), or
  • Taking control, which she sees as providing personal laptops for pupils.

The e-learning foundation have a well thought through scheme for this, which involves inviting parents to contribute a small, gift-aided, regular donation for portable computers for use in school and at home, are to be used at school as well as home, topping this funding up with a charitable grant from the foundation’s sponsors (guess who…), and letting the foundation do all the admin for free. This ticks lots of the right boxes, and they’re right to focus on the learner rather than the classroom, and to use equity as a guiding principle here.

Nevertheless, I’m not convinced. The learners certainly need computers in school, which, to a greater or lesser degree, they have already, they also need them at home – most do already though. Not many of them though need laptops for the journey between school and home though. Surely the funds here would be better applied to ensuring there’s internet access in all pupils’ homes, and at least some sort of computer, or even just a browser (refurbished school machines running Linux, perhaps), so that all can get on the net, get to the school VLE and run all the cool, browser based web 2.0 apps that don’t need high spec laptops and high price locally installed software. Now, getting the UK government to support the $100 one-laptop-per-child scheme, that would really do something about the digital divide, inside and outside schools.