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Digital divide made even wider in COVID-19 times

  • 27 March 2020
  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.

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,