Digital divide made even wider in COVID-19 times

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The COVID-19 pandemic is upending life as we know it. Social gatherings are prohibited, public spaces closed. Governments around the world are instructing their citizens to stay home. In Australia, state premiers have told parents to keep children home from school where possible, and it’s likely that in Term Two, teachers will deliver all classes online.

Computers sitting empty at a library (Getty images/Andersen Ross Photography Inc)

But, for now, schools remain open, to the chagrin of many who believe they should be shut for the safety of students, teachers and the wider community. Classes can be taught online, they argue, and, in an era of advanced remote technology, it’s true — they can.

As a freelance journalist, I’ve worked from home for years. While sometimes I complain about our Internet speed, I’ve successfully interviewed people from all over the world from my dining room table. Now, thanks to COVID-19, life has taken an unexpected turn, and I find myself attempting to home-school my seven-year-old daughter. Yesterday, she did her weekly music lesson via Zoom. This morning, I downloaded a lesson plan provided by her teacher, which includes a link to a workout uploaded to YouTube by an energetic PE teacher in the UK. Later, she’ll do an art lesson on Instagram and learn French via an iPad app.

So far, so good — but, of course, all of the above relies on access to a laptop or tablet and the internet, luxuries not universally available to Australian students. In 2016-17, 1.25 million Australian households lacked the home internet connection that’s required to make full use of online learning platforms like Class Dojo, where my daughter’s class is congregating during the coronavirus lockdown.

According to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), digital inclusion — whether a person can access, afford and have the digital ability to connect and use online technologies effectively — is influenced by differences in income, age, education levels, employment and geography. Digital exclusion often goes hand in hand with other forms of social disadvantage. Indigenous Australians, people who have a disability, have low incomes, or live in rural and remote locations are among the most digitally excluded groups in the country. ‘In general,’ notes the report, ‘Australians with low levels of income, education, and employment are significantly less digitally included,’ which creates ‘a substantial digital divide between richer and poorer Australians.’

Tellingly, it was private schools that led the way in sending students home to learn online, perhaps safe in the knowledge that their students’ affluent households would have ready access to the internet. In the public system, where students are more likely to have parents who earn below-average incomes or who have had a limited education, that’s not a reliable assumption to make. If we close schools completely, what happens to those students who don’t have digital access? Or, for that matter, to those students for whom school is a refuge from a dangerous or unstable home?

The digital divide is evident not just in education. Internet access is a prerequisite to participating in the digital economy. It’s also essential for completing many of the tasks modern life requires. For years, we have seen the gradual shift of everyday services like welfare and banking to the internet. In a matter of weeks, we’ve seen the Coronavirus pandemic effectively shut the door to the offline world.

 

'As we retreat to the relative safety of the online world to work, learn and socialise, we must think about who we are leaving behind — vulnerable people of all ages.'

 

This is a particular problem for people aged over 65 — the group that is most at risk of COVID-19 and the most digitally excluded in the country. According to the ADII, digital inclusion diminishes with age. Digital inclusion is about access and affordability, but it’s also about ability. Many people aged 65 and over lack the digital skills required to navigate the online world without assistance, and it is at public libraries — all closed due to the pandemic — where they typically seek help. For many elderly Australians who are now cut off from both face-to-face and virtual interactions, ‘social distancing’ looks and feels a lot like loneliness.

As we retreat to the relative safety of the online world to work, learn and socialise, we must think about who we are leaving behind — vulnerable people of all ages. Now, more than ever, it’s clear that the digital divide further entrenches inequality — something we must address post-pandemic.

 

 

Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath.

Main image: Computers sitting empty at a library (Getty images/Andersen Ross Photography Inc)

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, digital divide, digital inclusion, education, elderly

 

 

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Existing comments

While the government is considering all the people in need of funds during this crisis, it would be good if households unable to afford internet connection were given a free connection. I am not sure about accessibility in remote regions, but it certainly needs looking into.
Janet | 27 March 2020


I just rang the office of the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, and was told that the government is planning to address this issue on Monday. Hopefully many children will benefit.
Janet | 27 March 2020


A tale of two societies indeed. I sincerely hope that Minister Tehan keeps his word. As a retired teacher, I can readily see the problem. My wife, also a teacher is hard at work (at home in our office) - til midnight most nights lately, trying to put this online education into practice.It's a lot harder then those outside teaching seem to be thinking.
Gavin O'Brien | 27 March 2020


From the website of Andrew Leigh MP: “Graham Freudenberg recalls in his book A Certain Grandeur Gough Whitlam was asked for concrete example of equality. Whitlam replied, 'I want every kid to have a desk with a lamp in his own room to study.'” That was the divide then. Today, a half-century later, Whitlam would add a computer and connection to the Internet. These are educational necessities because the after-hours or weekend online classroom is a necessary supplement to the face-to-face classroom in that it allows for discussion contributions that are not ex tempore but made after opportunity for reflection, by the outgoing and reticent student alike (much like the discussion threads here on ES). And the own room would be nice too.
roy chen yee | 28 March 2020


It was a labor government that proposed a universal fiber optic NBN to all homes, until a Coalition govt decided we couldnt't afford it. Who are "we" now? The more affluent once again inherit the earth, leaving the meek to care for their own individual at-home school, and much else besides.
jpb | 28 March 2020


Home self testing kits should be manufactured ASAP here in Australia. Sent to every home for everybody residing in that home. Bill Gates has said these kits self testing texts) give the same result of accuracy as the ones being performed in testing collection centres. If Australia Post is announcing a launch of Pharmacy Home Delivery Service amid coronavirus crisis. Australia Post again in agreement with the Australian Government could deliver these kits and pick them up again. Without people having to leave there homes to queue up for the test.
AO | 29 March 2020


I swear, if I hear one more Marie Antoinette-type voice of privilege tell everyone else to "just stay home" I'm going to scream !
Rutegar | 29 March 2020


A better index would be an 'exclusion index' to put the focus where it really belongs: on those who are excluded and why they are excluded and what can be done to change that to 'included'. It would be more than just providing internet access which costs money that so many people don't have.
Eric | 30 March 2020


The "digital divide" has been around for about 200 years; a nickelodeon was an I/O programmable device; a pianola similar, just change the paper roll and anybody could play music...pedal away. In fact, when pianolas became popular some forecast the end of live entertainment but not everyone could afford one. Fucntions and features of the modern PC devices like I/O, ROM, robotics and digital audio were how a pianola worked. For many years tv stations had the For Schools programs and some classes were lucky enough to watch the teacher struggle to tune in the set and maybe get it right in time. Now we have digital tv... and if ever there was a time for appropriate educational broadcasting it must be now. The true digital divide is those who actually understand digital devices and the compromise to use digital instead of analogue; human senses are developed to experience the world in analogue, not the snippets of data and truncated information which digital provides or the conversion of video codecs to 25 frames per second. Digital isn't as important as the hype suggests... and you're significantly more at risk of "fake" news on a digital platform. Keep it real.
ray | 30 March 2020


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