Having rarely made the headlines before the pandemic, the shift to online education as a result of lockdown put digital poverty under the spotlight. During the Covid-19 outbreak, around one in five children (17%) did not have consistent access to a suitable device for online education. Initiatives led by the private and public sectors are attempting to provide children and their families with vital equipment, but must also focus on the skills which allow them to continue their studies if they are to make a difference.
IT professionals are doing their bit through initiatives such as #JoiningTheDots – a project connecting tech leaders and organisations that want to take action towards ending digital poverty in the UK. The initiative says that it counts with the support of high-profile industry partners, including AWS, The Institution of Engineering and Technology and Good Things Foundation, and is backed by nine tech leader communities representing 90,000 tech leaders.
Behind #JoiningTheDots is Freddie Quek, chief technology officer at Times Higher Education, who spearheaded the launch of the programme in January 2021. Since then, Quek has relentlessly been connecting CIOs, businesses, professional bodies, and other stakeholders to offer a coordinated plan against digital exclusion.
An issue identified by #JoiningTheDots was the lack of a holistic approach to digital poverty, something that remains a problem even now. Although there was a positive reaction from tech leaders and organisations who wanted to help during the pandemic, lack of coordination and duplicated efforts made some of these approaches void.
“The more we found out, the more we realised there is much good stuff happening, but they are not strategic enough,” explains Quek. “The next question obviously will be, how do we make sure that we address this second part?”
#JoiningTheDots has identified six action areas and tech leaders and communities have started contributing to these efforts. The first signpost was to donate equipment in a more systemic and sustainable manner through the National Business Response Network Tech Appeal Platform, which is part of the business-led membership organisation Business in the Community. Quek thinks that collecting data about these initiatives is essential to ensure progress in the fight against digital exclusion. He adds that more research is needed since the research community is fragmented when it comes to studying digital poverty.
A symposium was held last week to try and engender a more collaborative approach to ending digital poverty. Arranged by the Digital Poverty Alliance, a community established by taskforce Digital Access for All, it also involved The Learning Foundation consultancy, Dixons Carphone, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and Ofcom, and attempted to identify gaps in digital inclusion research.
Ending digital poverty: a holistic approach required
Another challenge that still needs to be addressed is how equipment is distributed among school children, says Quek. Although schools know who need the devices, Quek says that there needs to be a governance policy in place that ensures that this is done transparently. He is also concerned that equipment is distributed too quickly without adequate support for the children and their guardians on how to use it. He mentions an example where laptops were donated to a school on a Friday and were already distributed among students on Monday: “How is that possible without support or training?”
Quek says that a useful model to learn from is the Mayor of London Office’s Digital Access for All initiative, which aims to provide digital skills in addition to equipment to all Londoners by 2025. Quek says that this approach does not just address lack of devices, which is only one aspect of digital poverty, but tackles holistically a lack of connectivity, support, training and safety.
“I think this is the beginning of everybody understanding that digital poverty is not about equipment,” adds Quek. “It's about that whole package of digital access.”
Quek adds that there is still lots of work to be done and that initiatives should not slow down as we come out of the pandemic. Digital poverty is still a persistent problem and he adds that behind the numbers are real people: “We cannot afford to start from scratch anymore. It’s been more than a year of Covid, we’ve got to look at everybody coming together, and I can sense that momentum of coming together.”
Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.