‘Digital poverty’ risks leaving students behind

Chris Brighton on 3 September 2020

The ability of students to participate in higher education from home is being disrupted by a lack of access to core digital infrastructure, according to new survey data from Student Hut's partner brand Natives published by the Office for Students (OfS), as a major new review into digital teaching and learning is launched.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, 52% of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection, with 8% ‘severely’ affected. According to the poll of 1,416 students, run for the OfS by Natives:

  • 71% reported lack of access to a quiet study space, with 22% ‘severely’ impacted
  • 56% said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with 9% ‘severely’ impacted
  • 18% were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet, with 4% ‘severely’ impacted.

The findings come as OfS chair, Sir Michael Barber, launches a major review of digital teaching and learning in English higher education today. Examining the relationship between digital poverty and students’ academic experience is one area of the review.

The review will also consider how digital technology has been used to deliver remote education since the pandemic started; how high-quality digital teaching and learning can be delivered at scale in the future; and the opportunities that digital education presents for universities in medium and long term. It will draw on examples of successful online teaching from the UK and overseas, particularly in the lockdown.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, said:

"Since the beginning of the pandemic universities have been working hard to deliver high-quality education in extremely difficult circumstances – I’ve have been repeatedly impressed by their innovation and ingenuity. Likewise, students have shown great flexibility and dedication to their studies throughout.

With this unprecedented disruption comes an opportunity. In a short space of time, many universities and colleges have significantly developed the digital teaching and learning options they offer students. It is critical that we build on this progress–identifying what has worked well in recent months, what methods could be enhanced further, and identifying long-term opportunities for innovation that will benefit generations of students into the future.

However, it is no use making these strides if there are students who cannot access digital resources effectively. As today’s polling shows, there remain a significant number of students whose access to remote education is being disrupted – sometimes severely – by poor access to core digital infrastructure. And there remains critical progress to be made in closing persistent gaps in broadband speeds between urban and rural areas.

Improving equality of opportunity for students from all backgrounds is central to our work. We have already set universities and colleges ambitious targets on improving access for disadvantaged students and progress is being made. But as digital teaching and learning is increasingly embedded in higher education, we cannot risk students being left behind in the rush for online innovation. That is why I have put an examination of the impact of digital poverty at the heart of this review and will ensure that the recommendations we make will have student access at their core.”

The OfS has published a call for evidence seeking responses from those involved in the delivery and design of digital teaching and learning, such as teachers and administrators, as well as student unions. Information received from the call for evidence will help inform the recommendations of the digital teaching and learning review and to identify case studies.

Today’s student polling also asked students about their general perceptions of how successfully their courses were delivered during the pandemic. It showed that 51% of students said that they were satisfied with the quality of their teaching during the pandemic, compared with 34% dissatisfied. Students who reported having live online lectures tended to view their teaching more positively than those taught with old recorded lectures or written slides. Other areas of the survey showed that:

  • 68% of students agreed that they were able to communicate with staff when necessary, compared to 19% who disagreed
  • 61% agreed that their university’s approach to assessment has been made clear, compared to 26% who disagreed
  • 60% agreed that changes to their course were communicated effectively, compared to 28% who disagreed
  • 46% of students were satisfied with their overall course experience, compared to 43% dissatisfied.

To find out more about the unique student research and engagement opportunities available through our opinion panel of over 40,000 students, get in touch with our experts today. 

Chris Brighton
Chris Brighton on 3 September 2020