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The digital divide in a new normal

  • 23 February 2021
  Among the innumerable ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed modern life is the accelerated shift of work, education and services to the online space. Now, 12 months into the ‘new normal’ of pandemic life, we’re accustomed to whipping out our phones to snap a QR code before entering a venue and Zoom calls have become a standard feature of the workday.

For those of us who already regularly shopped, banked, studied and worked via the Internet, it was easy to adapt to telehealth appointments with doctors and video calls with friends and family.

Of course, these activities require access to the Internet — something 2.5 million Australians are without. A further 4 million access the Internet solely using a mobile connection. For these citizens, the pandemic exacerbated the existing digital divide.

Since 2016, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index has measured the nation’s digital divide using access, affordability and ability as metrics. The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which measures to March 2020, catches the beginning of the pandemic and the introduction of strict physical distancing regulations but ‘does not fully reflect the effects of the pandemic on Australians’ digital inclusion.’

Still, in 2020, as in previous years, the report found that ‘Australians with lower levels of income, employment, and education are significantly less digitally included’ which created ‘a substantial digital divide between richer and poorer Australians.’

The report shows that while Australia’s overall digital inclusion score increased 1.1 points to 63, the considerable gap between rich and poor remains stubbornly unchanged. Thirty points separate the lowest income households (43.8) and the highest (73.8), a gap that has remained consistent since the first report was issued in 2016.

This digital divide took on increased significance in the nation’s classrooms in the face of school closures, particularly in Victoria, where the population endured an extended lockdown from July until October.

'In a pandemic new normal, extra resources must be directed to vulnerable groups to close the digital divide.'

Disadvantage is already a very real presence in Australia’s education system. According to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, ‘the average 15-year-old Australian from a low socio-economic background is 3 years behind their peers from a high socio-economic background in mathematics and science.’

While experts say it’s too early to gain a clear picture of the lockdown’s effect on students, there is emerging evidence of off-site learning’s adverse effects on students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Approximately 800,000 of Australia’s primary and secondary